The Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved spending $250,000 to help conserve more than 600 acres in West Routt County's Elkhead Valley.
The money comes from the county's Purchase of Development Rights program. The Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust will hold the conservation easement on 617 acres of the Howe Ranch on Routt County Road 56 north of Hayden.
"The PDR board was very pleased to handle this application," Allan White, a member of the board, said at Tuesday's hearing with the commissioners and landowners Cal and Penny Howe. "In my mind, it's clearly a ranch that fit our vision when we first put together the PDR program. It's a beautiful ranch. These folks built it and continue to maintain it, and we were very pleased and felt privileged to go out there and see what they've done."
The Howe Ranch includes irrigated hay meadows, riparian areas along Calf Creek and sage-dominated rangelands, according to a news release, which states that the ranch also provides important habitat for species including elk, deer, pronghorn, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, fox, sandhill cranes, greater sage grouse and Columbian sharp-tail grouse.
"Protecting ranches like the Howe Ranch helps to ensure that the ranching heritage of Routt County is preserved for future generations," Chris West, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, said in a news release. "It is a privilege to work with landowners who are dedicated to the land and the agricultural values that have shaped Routt County and Colorado for more than 150 years."
The Elkhead Valley was settled in the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, U.F. Harrison staked a claim on what is now the Howe Ranch. The first teachers at the historic Elkhead School boarded with the Harrison family. The Harrison cabin's remains still are visible near the Howes' home.
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 landowners donate 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 never will be developed. There are significant tax breaks associated with the move, sometimes worth millions depending on the details of the easement.
Also, some entities - including the PDR program - will compensate landowners for the land-value loss to encourage more people to enter into conservation easements. The Howes are contributing about two-thirds of the easement's value, which means they are not being reimbursed for about two-thirds of the $770,000 in property value lost by stripping the land of its development rights.
"We're just glad you guys are helping us out," Cal Howe said at Tuesday's hearing. "We feel it's one of the few places left in Routt County that hasn't been trashed, basically. It's still like it was 100 years ago. : Other people are investigating other possibilities there. It would be great if the entire valley was preserved, and it appears we may be heading in that direction."
Some have criticized the program for spending taxpayer money on remote lands that will remain under private ownership. PDR Board Chairman Ron Roundtree rejected those criticisms in August and also noted that projects in the Elkhead Valley and others are highly visible from public roads and public lands. Visibility is one criterion 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," Roundtree said in August after the approval of a neighboring conservation easement.
To date, the PDR program has completed 24 projects protecting 14,670 acres at a cost of more than $6 million. Six more projects totaling 3,219 acres are under negotiation.