Saturday, August 21, 2004
Today we conclude our five-week series on the status of agriculture in Routt County -- a topic one might expect to reach a glum conclusion given the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing ranchers.
After hearing the stories of ranchers across the valley, it is clear agriculture has been sustained in our valley in large part because of the perseverance, ingenuity and resiliency of those involved. But they are faced with a conundrum that, if it isn't solved, will eliminate agriculture as we know it.
Steamboat Springs is popular because of its image as a cowtown in a pastoral sea of ranches, but its popularity threatens to be the downfall of the very industry upon which it is based. Many of ranchers' struggles -- development pressures, rising land costs and "urban interface" issues -- have arisen as more people are drawn to the idea of buying and building trophy homes and hobby ranches among a scenic patchwork of hayfields and cow pastures.
True, ranching as an industry contributes very little to the local economy -- less than 1 percent. But the image of ranching drives marketing for the industries that do support modern Steamboat. That adds economic incentive to preserving agriculture.
The free market can't and shouldn't be stopped, but concerted efforts must be taken to ensure that ranch land -- and the history and culture that has thrived with it -- doesn't disappear from this valley. Those efforts must come from government, business, residents and ranchers.
Likely there isn't a rancher around who wouldn't rather go back in time, even just 15 years, to when land averaged $444 an acre instead of $1,890. But given the realities of the modern world, they have adapted admirably, and in ways their grandparents probably wouldn't have dreamed. They have taken on extra jobs, added snowmobile rides and cattle drives, leased land, developed hunting operations and placed land into conservation programs.
Ranchers alone cannot preserve the role of agriculture in our community.
At the government level, Routt County's Purchase of Development Rights program and land-preservation subdivision regulations should be lauded for their potential to help preserve area agriculture. So should local politicians' efforts to reduce or eliminate inheritance taxes and preserve tax breaks for agricultural producers.
The work of nonprofits such as the Yampa Valley Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy gives ranchers new options and the chance for some relief from growing development pressures.
At the business level, the growing recognition of the relationship between the success of ranching and the success of Steamboat businesses is heartening. For example, as part of the Main Street Steamboat project, a downtown business revitalization effort, businessman Lyman Orton recently suggested the group's mission statement should be based on acknowledging that relationship and working to assure the long-term success of ranching.
And at the individual level, residents -- newcomers and old-timers -- have a responsibility to respect the land, its historic agricultural use and the people who are trying to preserve that way of life.
Ranching is Routt County's past and remains a small but important part of its present. It would be a shame if we allow it to disappear from Routt County's future.