PDR program helps county conserve 645 acres with $400,000

Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust to hold easement for Elkhead Ranch parcel

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Routt County's Purchase of Development Rights, or PDR, program broke new ground Tuesday with the approval of a project in West Routt County's Elkhead Valley.

The Routt County Board of Commissioners approved spending $400,000 of taxpayer funds to help place 645 acres of the 3,950-acre Elkhead Ranch under a conservation easement to be held by the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust. The easement is the third phase of an effort to protect the entire ranch.

The easement lands include grazing pastures, hay fields, portions of Elkhead Creek, meadows, trees and wetlands. According to a news release, Elkhead Ranch "provides important habitat for numerous wildlife species including elk, deer, pronghorn, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, fox, sandhill cranes, Columbian sharp-tail grouse and greater sage grouse."

The ranch was homesteaded in 1883 and at one point contained a post office and school for the Elkhead community. The ranch is 15 miles north of Hayden on Routt County Road 56.

"The PDR program is a great testament to the importance the citizens of the county place on preserving the rural and agricultural character of Routt County," said CJ Mucklow, Routt County extension agent and a board member for the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust. "In a lot of instances this program provides landowners with the means to stay on their property, continue in production agriculture and pass on the operation to the next generation."

Elkhead Ranch owner Heather Stirling said the conservation easement and the contribution from Routt County would do just that.

"Hopefully, I'll see my grandkids working there," Stirling said.

PDR board chairman Ron Roundtree said the Elkhead Ranch easement is the program's first in the Elkhead Valley.

"This is a very important project to us because of where it is," said Roundtree, who said he hopes Stirling's actions will spur other area property owners to put their land under conservation easements. "She is breaking ground, for sure."

Boosting stewardship

The PDR program is funded by a 1.5-mill property tax approved in 2006, nine years after the program first was approved for a 10-year period. The 2006 renewal is good for 20 years.

When a landowner donates a conservation easement, they are permanently protecting the land from development. This reduces the value of the restricted land, but landowners' compensation isn't just the knowledge that the land will never be developed. There are significant tax breaks associated with the move, sometimes worth millions depending on the details of the easement.

Also, some entities - such as the PDR program - will compensate landowners for the land-value loss to encourage more people to enter into conservation easements.

Stirling is contributing about two-thirds of the easement's value, which means she is not being reimbursed for about 66 percent of the property value lost by placing it in a conservation easement.

"This is not only beautiful land and prime agricultural land," County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush told Stirling, "but your contribution is over the top, in my opinion."

Some have criticized the program for spending taxpayer money on remote lands that will remain under private ownership. Roundtree rejected those criticisms and also noted that this project and others are highly visible from public roads and public lands. Visibility is one criteria the PDR board uses to evaluate a project, but not the only one, Roundtree said.

"If the Elkhead Valley isn't protected, there's no reason to believe it won't get chopped up," he said.

Roundtree said that if small landowners aren't able to protect their land, it likely will be gobbled up by commercial interests and divvied up into 35-acre parcels, which would be accompanied by traffic, driveways, homes, lighting and absent property owners who pay less attention to their land and issues such as weed control.

"This is an area that's still pristine," Roundtree said. "The way you keep it that way is under the stewardship of people who really care about the land."

Stirling said the money she is receiving from the county will be invested directly back into the ranch to improve its long-term viability.

To date, the PDR program has completed 23 projects protecting more than 14,000 acres at a cost of about $6 million. An additional 7 projects totaling 3,836 acres and $2.1 million are under negotiation.

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