Housing bumping cattle off West's ranches

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July 3, 2002

Housing bumping cattle off West's ranches

BECKY BOHRER

Associated Press

Housing developments threaten to replace more than 24 million acres of ranchland across the West by 2020, a new study showed.

Montana has the most ranchland at risk - nearly 5.1 million acres, according to the study released Tuesday by the American Farmland Trust.

Four of the five Western counties with the most agricultural land susceptible to development are in Montana. And Gallatin County - home to Bozeman, stunning mountain vistas and a booming business community - leads that list.

"The bottom line is, we're sprawling out of control," said Jeff Jones, regional director of the nonprofit group.


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An increased number of subdivisions, ranchettes and other housing developments encroaching on ranchlands in the rural West is a concern of regional commodity and conservation groups as well as local governments. In some areas, such organizations are cooperating to offer ranchers financial incentives to stay on the land.

A goal of the study, Jones said, was to identify ranchland considered at greatest risk to being lost to development in seven states - Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming - to help groups focus conservation efforts and financial resources.

In Idaho, more than 5 million acres was identified; in Colorado, 4.8 million acres. Wyoming had 2.6 million acres listed as vulnerable, much of that in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Knowing where these key areas are allows local officials to preserve lands while also allowing for development elsewhere, Jim Petterson, a spokesman for The Nature Conservancy, a contributor to the study, said.

A Gallatin County program lets landowners sell property development rights to the county. The arrangement gives the landowner money to sustain an operation while allowing him to live on and work the land. But he agrees not to allow full-scale development on it, said Debbie Deagen, executive director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust.

Conservation and farm officials said such an arrangement benefits both landowners, who otherwise might sell to a developer in the face of poor agricultural commodity prices, and the public.

Ranchland, they said, also provides or helps preserve habitat for wildlife, water sources and nearly unobstructed landscapes - attributes desirable both to tourists and other residents.

"We're acknowledging that the farming and ranching community is producing valuable resources but is not being compensated for it," Deagen said.

John Stencel, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said similar partnerships are key to protecting prime ranchland, especially in more-populous Western states such as Colorado.

"With prices and the drought, we expect a lot of bankruptcies and a lot of problems," he said. "It will be so much easier for people to just come in."

Beth Emter, a spokeswoman for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, added: "Any time a ranch leaves production agriculture, a family history is gone and so is a piece of the economy for the state."

And Emter said she believes that there is a desire to help keep farmers and ranchers on the land.

"The reason people want to move to Montana is the wide open spaces, the wild habitat and this romantic vision they have," she said. "The reason this is so plentiful is because of production agriculture and I think people are beginning to appreciate that more."
 
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