As farms and ranches face development threats, feds renew push to preserve open space
The hillsides surrounding Daniel, Wyoming, look especially green this year after a wet winter. Andi James is surveying a pasture on a horse watching a group of heifers work their way across the landscape. This expansive plot is located on a several-thousand acre property, and it’s a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers and ranchers to maintain open space.
The program helping to preserve a tough but rewarding way of life in a harsh environment. Daniel has a population of just over 100 people. The growing season lasts about six weeks, and the average January temperature is about 12 degrees.
“We'd rather be cold than hot. You can always put more clothes on,” James said. “Our fun looks like work to people. But we would rather go rope calves and ride horses even for fun on days off.”
James teaches the second grade at a nearby school and purchased the ranch in 2021 from her father. To supplement her income and support operations, she rents a cabin on the property on Airbnb and sells hamburgers and cuts of beef directly to passers by.
“Trying to move the ranch from generation to generation is now finding out how can we keep it going? What's going to work? The cow herd isn't always going to do it,” James said.
Keeping a large ranch has its challenges. Hay prices reached record highs last year, and land values – and property taxes – in the Mountain West continue to rise. The U.S. lost about 1.9 million acres of farm and ranch lands in 2022, with a quarter of that just in Wyoming.
Bill Bunce, state executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Wyoming, said it can be tempting for families to sell out of the ranching business. And that can have a big impact on local food supplies and air quality.
“If we don't do something now to increase that habitat and make it economically viable, where people just don't have to sell off the places, then in another 100 years, it just won't be there at all. It'll be another parking lot,” Bunce said.
Recognizing the value of working lands, the USDA is renewing its push for voluntary conservation programs like the one James is involved in. Under Secretary Robert Bonnie said at a recent meeting of western governors that preserving open space is also crucial for wildlife.
“Most people think about elk and moose and pronghorn and mule deer and they see them in places like Yellowstone,” he said. “They don't recognize that, yeah, they're there in the summertime. But in the wintertime, they're often on private working lands.”
Conservation Reserve Programs have been around for decades, but participation in them steadily declined in recent years. Between 2006 and 2021, enrolled acreage dropped by about 40 percent, or 15 million acres. Critics said the program lacked attractive incentives and had a muddled environmental record.
So, the USDA made changes in 2021. Rental minimums for grassland-specific conservation increased to $13 dollars an acre, and that helped boost participation. A landowner can make up to $50,000 a year from the program.
The agency also added incentives for soil and water quality improvement and pushed enrollment for historically disadvantaged groups like beginning farmers or veterans. In the West, they set up priority zones where conservation is considered especially important, like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and former Dust Bowl areas in eastern Colorado and New Mexico.
“Economic viability is critical. One of the best tools for conserving grasslands is keeping ranchers ranching,” Bonnie said.
In 2022, for the first time in 15 years, total enrolled acreage increased in Conservation Reserve Programs, and the USDA plans to keep investing in partnerships to conserve wildlife.
For Andi James in Daniel, joining a grasslands program doesn’t mean many changes on the ground. She has to abide by certain rules, like not growing hay for part of the year. But she can still graze and operate her ranch like normal – and that’s preserving open space for moose, pronghorn and other wildlife.
“They're always up there. We see them all the time. And they live right along with whatever's grazing,” she said. “Just saw some babies the other day, actually.”
The difference is these payments provide about $35,000 of supplemental income. James said with this extra money, she could build better fencing and wells, pay off a loan or hire extra help.
“We want to continue doing what we do,” she said. “This is our livelihood. And we're more looking for programs that help supplement what we love to do so that we can keep our land working and operating as a ranch.”
The expiration date of the 2018 farm bill is approaching later this summer, and advocates say conservation programs need further reforms to continue to grow enrollment, preserve open space and recognize the value agriculture provides. Debate over funding and policy will ensue in the coming months, and that will determine how many ranchers like James the USDA will be able to get on board.
This story was produced with reporting assistance from the Western Landowner’s Alliance.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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