RIDGWAY – Sue McIntosh is a fourth generation Coloradan. “I come from the little town of Golden,” she told an SRO crowd at Heidi’s Deli in Montrose at last Wednesday’s 8 a.m. forum. “A town that is not there,” McIntosh continued provocatively. “It’s been subsumed” by the urban/suburban growth of greater Denver.
“Colorado is going to continue to grow like crazy,” she said. “Between 2010 and 2040 Colorado is going to grow at a rate of 7 percent, twice the U.S. and world growth rate . . . Those people are going to need water. And that trend tends to dry up agricultural land” as water rights are severed from the land and sold.
McIntosh is doing what she can to preserve agricultural use, family ranches, wildlife habitat and open-space lands as Executive Director of the Black Canyon Regional Land Trust, based in Ridgway. Over nearly 20 years, BCRLT has negotiated 352 conservation easements encompassing 45,000 acres in six counties of southwestern Colorado, easements that “conserve those big, charismatic ranches that we all know makes Colorado what it is.”
McIntosh is a lawyer in blue jeans, one who practiced natural resource law in Washington, D.C., and was for a time council to the Texas Sierra Club. She is down to earth enough to share details of her morning: the power went out up in Elk Meadows where she lives, so she “made coffee on the woodstove, and I don’t know if my socks match; I had to reach for them in the dark.”
She speaks the same language as the landowners BCRLT works with. The majority of those conservation deals have been in Delta and Gunnison counties, along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The move to Ridgway comes, McIntosh said, because “Ouray County is really underserved. Conservation is kind of a monkey puzzle in Ouray County.” In addition to moving the office to Ridgway, “We’re currently designing workshops in legacy planning, conservation planning, for Ouray County and south Montrose County.”
Ouray County, she pointed out, is 49th statewide in acres conserved. Montrose is 34th. Delta is 20th. And Gunnison County is 10th, out of 64 Colorado counties.
What is a conservation easement? McIntosh asked, rhetorically.
It’s a private contract between a landowner and a private land trust. The easement runs with the land forever, and either “extinguishes full or partial development rights on that property.” Development rights – subdividing or selling off pieces of a ranch, for example – are conveyed to a qualified land trust (BCRLT is non-governmental, nonprofit, 501(c)(3), accredited land trust) to hold forever.
In return for giving up development rights, the landowner receives significant federal and state tax credits, up to $350,000 per year.
Every easement is different, McIntosh said. Some allow public access and recreational use, like Ridgway’s Rollans Park. Others preserve family farms. There are rules. The landowners must be Colorado residents. The easement must be perpetual. And the value of the tax-benefit must be determined by appraisal.
But, what a conservation easement does not do, McIntosh emphasized, is “bring government into your life. Some people think I’ve got Barack Obama in a little wagon along behind me,” she said to trickles of laughter.
Conservation easements help “older folks,” McIntosh said, “who are land rich and cash poor,” helping them stay on the land that they love, as well as helping “younger folks, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford their own farming/ranching legacy, going forward.”
She told the story of a third-generation North Fork farming couple who, with the help of a conservation easement, will now be able to pass the land, and its traditions, down to a fourth generation, “So they don’t have to just sit around and look at pictures of what grandma and grandpa used to do.”
She mentioned the McCloud Ranch, a sixth-generation, 1,500-acre working ranch on the edge of the Black Canyon. And the Lazy H near Paonia, a 4,200-acre property BCRLT is working to preserve now.
“Why do we do it? We still have these treasures,” she said. “It would be different if the Uncompahgre Valley looked like the Eagle Valley or the Roaring Fork Valley. Twenty, 40, 60 years from now, when we’re all flying around in jet packs, we want to be able to look down on this land.” With pride.