Saving Ranchland from Suburban Sprawl

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In many parts of the United States, government officials are looking for ways to slow down the development of forests and ranchland into sprawling subdivisions. Some agencies are turning to "conservation easements" — paying private landowners to give up, forever, the right to develop their land. Independent producer Doug Fine visits a rancher in a remote corner of New Mexico who's using such a program to keep his ranch intact.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya, sitting in for Alex Chadwick and Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, what do tech giants Sony, Yahoo! and Apple have in common? All three committed some of the biggest corporate blunders of the year.

But first, across the US, land managers are trying to find ways to slow down the loss of open space and water sources, many of them threatened by rampant development. Some are turning to a federally funded program that pays private landowners not to subdivide. Doug Fine went to one vast ranch in New Mexico where a cattleman believes this program of payments for conversation makes it financially viable to get his spread intact.

DOUG FINE reporting:

Rancher Jay Platt steps around the paddies left by his 125 head of cattle as he gives a tour. His spread here in southwest New Mexico, Horse Springs Ranch, is big. It would take a week to walk the 16,000 wild acres of arroyos, plains and cottonwoods. And there aren't just cattle here. There's evidence of lots of wildlife, as Platt explains.

Mr. JAY PLATT (Rancher): Well, in the area of the water, where you have the cottonwood and the oak trees, there's a lot of bear scat. I have been surprised at this elevation to see large numbers of javelina. Big elk population.

FINE: When Platt, a third-generation rancher, was looking for a way to buy out siblings' interests on the property, he didn't want to subdivide those acres for sentimental reasons.

Mr. PLATT: We did subdivide one ranch and that was kind of a hard thing to do. You know, emotionally it was a ranch that had been put together by my grandfather. I like land and I think these subdivisions, that those are really not a good thing for land long-term.

FINE: Three years ago, Platt heard about the Forest Legacy Program, a state-administered program funded by the US Forest Service. Under the program, Platt gives up the right to subdivide. That could lower the value of the land should he ever sell. But in exchange, he gets a one-time cash payment. As he strolled the semifrozen Allenmacido Creek(ph) on his property, Platt said that what sold him on the program was that he could keep working the land.

Mr. PLATT: Well, you can continue to use it for ranch purposes, which is our primary interest.

FINE: But competition for the program's $60 million is fierce. Horse Springs Ranch had two precious things going for it, however: water and wildlife. Bob Sivinski, program director for the Forest Legacy Program in New Mexico, said that the ranch is like a bridge, a corridor for wildlife between two big tracts of federal land.

Mr. BOB SIVINSKI (Program Director, New Mexico Forest Legacy Program): This ranch also has some deep canyons where there's perennial live water, which is really important in this part of New Mexico because this is a very dry area. So any place there's water is really important; wildlife habitat. And most of the water in this region right here is on this private ranch.

FINE: Horse Springs Ranch is located in Catron County, a vast and remote area 165 miles south of Albuquerque. Doug Boykin, the state forester for Catron County, said water is scarce here, as many find out who try to dig a well.

Mr. DOUG BOYKIN (State Forester for Catron County, New Mexico): In these subdivisions, some of the landowners that are going over a thousand feet and spending 10, $15,000 and getting dry holes.

FINE: With all it has going for it, Horse Springs Ranch became the only New Mexico land parcel currently funded by the Forest Legacy Program. Close to 10,000 acres will be covered by a conservation easement forever preventing subdivision. The deal will make Platt a rich man. He'll get $2.6 million of taxpayer money. Forester Boykin said it's worth it to conserve such a large tract of land and water.

Mr. BOYKIN: In the last 25 years in my career, I've seen these pieces of ground that gone from wild land, turn into big subdivisions. And I think the Legacy is a way to protect certain pieces of that ground.

FINE: Boykin actually would like to preserve a lot more land through easements, but he doesn't have enough money to do it. Not everyone in Catron County, though, likes the Forest Legacy Program. County manager Bill Aymar says restrictions on future development means a lot less revenue for the county down the road.

Mr. BILL AYMAR (Catron County, New Mexico, Manager): What it's going to end up doing is removing a tremendous amount of acreage from the tax rolls of the county, and this county is already minimally funded as it is.

FINE: Program managers point out that private land remains in private hands under the Forest Legacy Program, but with future uses restricted. What excites Sivinski is that the wave of subdivision hasn't yet reached New Mexico to the degree it has in more developed Colorado and Arizona, so the land here is cheaper. That means you can conserve a lot more land for the same amount of money. Nationwide, the Forest Legacy Program currently funds 44 projects in 32 states. So far, it's conserved over a million acres of land. For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.

CHIDEYA: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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