'Keeping Wyoming Wyoming'
December 1, 2022
PINEDALE - Conservation easements – a landowner's sale or donation of development rights in exchange for perpetual protection of an important agricultural landscape – are not new.
But as Wyoming's rural counties face explosive growth of land costs, more ranch families and landowners are seriously considering conservation easements as a way to pass their livelihoods to the next generations. They are very detailed arrangements – contracts, really – and should involve the entire family. Some include some compensation for families to continue ranching without pressures to quit or so they can buy more ag property to expand.
The Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD) put together the Nov. 16 program, "Keeping Wyoming Wyoming," with the Green River Valley CattleWomen and Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust (WSGLT), one used by a number of Sublette landowners.
So far, 16 families have entered 30 conservation easements with WSGLT in Sublette County.
"We wanted to make sure the landowners of Sublette County had an understanding of another tool in the toolbox," said SCCD manager Mike Henn, welcoming about 30 people to the Lovatt Room.
WSGLT engagement coordinator Sarah Kauer opened with the land trust's history. It was established in 2000 when Wyoming Stock Growers Association members saw the need for voluntary conservation efforts of ag land and voted it into existence, she said. They could see an aging ranching population and growing rural land-development pressures might need some educated assistance with what to do next.
Executive director Jessica Crowder asked the group for an "interactive" open dialogue and questions.
A conservation easement is voluntary and perpetual, individually tailored and legally binding, Crowder said. It limits the amount and type of development on the property but does not restrict any agricultural practices or structures.
She compared property rights to a bundle of sticks, with the development stick removed and the rest staying in place.
"We focus on the land remaining intact for agriculture for future generations," she said, noting landowners' growing interests to conserve their wildlife habitat, hayfields and pastures.
More families are interested in preserving those ag, conservation and wildlife values than looking for a tax write-off, Crowder said.
"This wildlife habitat is what makes Sublette County what it is," she said.
People's love of their land can lead to their undertaking a conservation agreement as their permanent legacy, Crowder said.
"The main reason is because they love the place and want it to remain intact," she said. "Every landowner we talk to has a connection to the land. It's not an easy decision – if you don't have an emotional reason for doing it, it probably won't work for you."
Following are some questions Crowder fielded.
What if you have a known big-game migration route on your land? Does that raise the value?
A conservation easement (CE) might help keep the corridor and its associated habitat open for wildlife. It does increase the land's wildlife, recreational and habitat values.
What is the first step if you are interested in a CE?
Investigate by visiting WSGLT or the Jackson Land Trust websites. Call a land trust expert or a known wildlife organization. Research every possible option. Talk, talk, talk with your family, attorney, accountant – everyone important to you.
What kind of appraisal is needed?
The land trust works with only qualified appraisers that the landowner pays for the appraisal. There are not many and are booked well in advance.
The appraiser looks at comparable properties sold and if they are "encumbered" by a CE or not. Appraisals are not done with county assessments or anticipated market value.
What else affects an appraisal?
If the land is by a subdivision or if it is very remote, it might be difficult to compare its value.
What neighbors sell their properties for could affect values. So can growing pressure for development nearby.
"The reality is, it's constantly changing," Crowder said of factors. "If you have a conservation easement and sell your property, that would be 'comparable' for future sales. Your land is technically diminished because you gave away the development rights."
If your land value ends up lower, how is that good?
If the CE reduces your resale value, your property taxes for ag land won't change much. It also means the land could be affordable for a family member or beginning rancher to buy.
Are water rights affected?
No, they remain with the land. Irrigation methods are considered management practices.
Can I build corrals and barns, though?
Yes, if they are ag-related structures.
Can I plan a future homesite with a CE?
If you will need a homesite, negotiate for a future building envelope and set aside acreage. A residence could affect conservation value.
Can I change my mind? No – and if you do, you would be responsible to repay all funds invested toward the CE.
For more Visit Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust at wsglt.org and Jackson Hole Land Trust's Green River Valley program at jhlandtrust.org.