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
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
"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
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. …