Holding steady, Land trusts continue work
When members of land trusts throughout Wyoming are asked about financial health through the current economic low times, they generally respond the organizations are doing just fine and they credit the stability to those who offer financial support.
Land trusts work with two different funding streams – project dollars used to purchase easements and operations dollars used for staff, travel, etc. Pam Dewell of the Wyoming Stock Growers Ag Land Trust in Cheyenne says grants like those from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust (WWNRT) are used only for projects, while their operations are funded through private contributions and foundation grants.
“With our organization the lion’s share of funding comes from private donors,” says Dewell. “We have not experienced a downturn, and our supporters have been tremendously supportive of our work in helping to fund our operations.”
Andrea Erickson Qui-roz, state director of The Nature Conservancy Wyoming Chapter (TNC) in Lander, says the TNC has seen effects, but not nearly to the extent of other states. “It’s been a difficult year for people here, but not as bad as other parts of the country,” she says. “I hope that carries forward as the economy begins to recover in a slow but sure way, and we hope Wyoming will continue to stay a little more positive than the rest of the country.”
Of funding, Jordan Vana of the Green River Valley Land Trust (GRVLT) in Pinedale says, “We’ve been fortunate. Our inclusive mission allows us to work with a broad spectrum of supporters who have helped us weather the economic downturn.”
Vana says GRVLT not only made budget last year, but also helped landowners in the area conserve more working ranchland, wildlife habitat and open space than any year since 2007.
“We suspect that interest in private land conservation continues to advance because landowners see it as a good choice to help them meet their goals,” he continues.
However, Dewell says where project dollars are concerned, there’s never enough funding. “We have such a backlog of wonderful ranchlands and ranching families who would love to put easements on their properties, and we cannot raise enough project dollars to support them all,” she says.
Dewell notes that currently the WWNRT project dollars cover 20 percent of the cost of a conservation easement. “That’s an incredibly critical 20 percent,” she says. “Without that cash component we’d be unable to apply for some of the federal funding. Those dollars are incredibly important in attracting dollars from out of state.”
Dewell explains the initial WWNRT funding attracting matching funds from out-of-state, both federal and private. “Upwards of 75 percent of our project costs comes from private foundations out of state and federal agencies through the Farm Bill, and that’s all money we wouldn’t be able to bring in without the WWNRT seed money.”
Erickson Quiroz agrees, saying TNC has more support from public dollars than in the past. “The last time we had a downturn there were no public dollars like the WWNRT to help us continue projects. The public funding keeps us going and gives us a better set of tools for raising private dollars, even though the economy’s tough. The work we’ve done to set up long-term conservation funding is really paying off.”
“We were privileged in 2009 to work with a number of partners to raise more than $5,000,000 that helped the Thompson family conserve its centennial Cross Lazy Two Ranch west of Big Piney, modified 75 miles of existing fence to make it wildlife and livestock friendly, and educated adults and kids in our community about the benefits that conservation provides for them and their families,” states Vana.
In all, the GRVLT worked with landowners to conserve nearly 5,000 acres of working ranchland, wildlife habitat and open space in 2009.
An “incredibly interesting” component of conservation easements, says Dewell, is what the landowners choose to do with the income. “Many talk about paying down bank notes so their kids will have less of a burden with the ranch, and that frees up dollars that banks can then loan to other producers. Some landowners have taken the dollars and invested in additional land to increase the size of their operation, while others increase their herd size,” she explains.
“It’s really interesting that this potential to attract dollars from out of state is a tremendous opportunity to bring in dollars to spend on pivots, bank notes, fences and cattle,” says Dewell, adding that she thinks it’s an under told piece of the story.
As far as funding into 2010, Dewell says some foundations provide multiple-year grants for operations, while others pledge an amount with annual payments. One foundation enables two employees to be paid with out of state funds. Another Wyoming foundation supports activity in a specific geographic location.
“We’ve had more interest than ever before,” says Dewell of ranches considering conservation easements. “Each year we receive more interest from traditional ranching families throughout the state.”
She says with aging demographics in the ranch population, many are thinking ahead to estate planning. By placing an easement on a property and removing development rights, that land’s value can be brought down to a level where a young ranching family could afford to purchase it.
“The second-home market and the trophy ranch situation are real threats to the agricultural, rural way of life, and conservation easements are one tool that can be used to keep the value of lands at ag value, because if you take away the development right the land is closer to ag values going forward,” says Dewell. “It’s an opportunity for a landowner to raise capital without liquidating, and for a family that intends to stay in agriculture, conservation easements are a great tool.”
Of fundraising, Erickson Quiroz says TNC always tries new things. “The important thing is spending more time with contributors and trying to be more available to members so they know more about the work,” she notes. “The more they know, the more they get excited and the more they contribute. We stay really mindful that people need to know what they’re accomplishing with their contributions.”
“Landowners have a lot of choices, and with the downturn it’s hard for them to think about long-term financial health,” adds Erickson Quiroz. “It’s amazing that even with the slower economy many landowners have donated easements.”
“Interest in conservation has been steadily increasing and we do expect it to continue as more people move to Wyoming and the state’s major private landowners — working ranchers — continue to face challenges like estate taxes, limited profitability, drought, and uncertainty about grazing on federal lands,” says Vana.
“Most of the funding opportunities are primarily wildlife oriented,” says Dewell of current donations. “One day it’d be great to see opportunities to receive funding for other values, like historic and keeping the next generation of ranchers on the ground. That’s becoming more of a goal of our organization – to help support the next generation of ranching.”
Christy Hemken is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.