Ranchers Band Together to Resist Sprawl ; Conservation Agreementhelps Colorado Cattlemen Save Their Ranches from the Threat of Development

Article excerpt

In this remarkably unspoiled dell, set at the foot of the Sangre de Christos and home to several century-old cattle ranches, folks trying to save their cowboy culture have a name for their valley: "Custer County's Last Stand."

And for rancher Randy Rusk, the Old West, and the "New West," which in Colorado increasingly has been emblematized by sprawl, is now demarcated by a clear line. Actually, not a line as much as a green belt that soon will encompass 11,000 acres - an area equal to half of Manhattan Island - in the heart of the Wet Mountain Valley.

In a bold experiment, three conservation groups have persuaded Mr. Rusk and five other ranchers to sign a unique covenant limiting the kinds of development that they - or any future buyers - can do with the land. The conservation easements forbid the ranchers from converting their 1,500 acres into trophy homes, golf courses, and condominiums.

For the landowners, the agreement provides a modicum of assurance that their vocation will be protected from the infusion of newcomers pouring into the West, threatening the vast expanse of land they need for their cattle to roam.

The covenant marks a growing alliance between ranchers and environmentalists seeking to fight encroaching urbanization. Although a landowners and land preservationists have signed similar agreements elsewhere across the country, few other projects compare with the vast scale of the Wet Mountain Valley Ranch Preservation Program.

"Do you see right there?" Rusk asks, as he drives across the valley in a pickup truck with his wife, Claricy, pointing toward a sea of pastoral hay meadows and grazing Herefords. "The subdivisions stop when they reach our property, and then there's this big swath of open space," he says. "If ranching is going to survive, this is what it's going to take."

By the year 2025, conservative estimates indicate that Custer County will more than double in population. According to a study completed by the University of Colorado at Denver, 4,100 more homes will be scattered across the landscape, unless restrictions are applied.

In many isolated locales, ranchers are choosing to craft limitations on what can happen with their private property to stave off similar challenges of urbanization. In Jefferson County, Mont., for example, ranchers formed their own zoning district that only allows one home on every 640 acres. And in Routt County, Colo., near the resort community of Steamboat Springs, ranchers and conservationists have safeguarded 16,000 acres of ranchland. But Custer County's covenant is on a different scale altogether.

"This is as big and ambitious a program to protect ranching and the environment in a single effort as I know of," says Woody Beardsley of the Trust for Public Land, which has shepherded through the deal, along with the Colorado Cattleman's Agricultural Land Trust and Colorado Conservation Trust. …