In California, conservation easements are saving more than astonishing landscapes; they are saving livelihoods. The California Rangeland Trust is preserving working cattle ranches.
The fledgling group was founded in 1998 by the California Cattlemen’s Association with the help of a $400,000 grant from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. It was prompted in large part by the state’s relentless growth and the disappearance of range- lands. At 35 million residents, California is more populous than Canada. Traditional suburban development along with ranchettes are gobbling up open rural land. Furthermore, efforts to preserve prime farmland have shifted development pressure to rangelands.
The rangeland trust is similar to the land trusts often backed by environmental organizations. They both seek to save open space, wildlife habitat, scenic landscapes, and watersheds. However, the California Rangeland Trust, which is run by ranchers, has another top priority, the preservation of working ranches as viable businesses. In order to further this goal, the trust offers ranchers access to advisors from private industry, the University of California, and government agencies to help landowners protect the environmental quality of their land as well as the economic stability of their ranching operations.
In just five years, the trust has protected more than 70,000 acres from development with both donated and purchased easements. Dozens of other ranch families have offered to sell development rights on more than half a million acres, but funds to purchase these rights are not yet available. Meanwhile, ranchers anxious to stay in business are feeling the competition from foreign beef producers as well as the pressure of debts and inheritance taxes.
Jack Varian is one of the fortunate ranchers who has already sold development rights to the trust. His 17,000-acre spread between the coast and the Sierra Nevada Mountains offers stunning views that have been the backdrop for television commercials. The proceeds from the sale of the easement allowed the 67-year-old Varian to pay off a $1.5 million debt, set aside $1 million as a nest egg, insure that the ranch would pass to his four children, and-no less important -made it possible for Varian to continue ranching his land. He also has diversified his income by allowing people to hunt on his land for a fee and offering four cattle drives a year for city slickers.