Ranch conservation easement draws scrutiny

Capital Press Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO, CA 1/1/03- Ranchers in the Sierra Nevada foothills are being criticized for signing an easement designed to keep their 13,000 acres in the ranching business.

Earlier this year, Jack and Beverly Sparrowk and two associates of Sparrowk Livestock sold a conservation easement on their Sierra Valley land. With the help of the California Rangeland Trust, they’ve secured the ranch’s future in the cattle business.

But now a neighboring farmer is worried he could be impacted by management practices on the adjacent easement. And a Plumas County supervisor blames the ranchers for not following the county’s general plan and taking most of the value out of the land, which partially was zoned for development.

“Now we have 15,000 acres that are essentially worthless,” said B.J. Pearson, a supervisor in Plumas County, where part of the easement is located. “You can’t do anything with it except farm,” he said.

Pearson is concerned with two issues. Now that the land is valued less because of the easement, he believes the county will generate less money from it. And, he’s disappointed the land owners didn’t tell the county about the easement, which essentially voided any development rights on land zoned for both agricultural and commercial uses.

About 600 acres of the easement were zoned for development, Pearson said. By selling the development rights to that land, the owners and the CRT violated the county’s general plan.

But the ranchers had another plan in mind. They signed the easement contract in order to ensure the land’s future in the cattle business.

“The owners were paid to keep the working cattle ranch a working cattle ranch,” said Darrell Sweet, who manages the Bar One Ranch. “It’s being taxed as a cattle ranch. It’s still a cattle ranch. And the county will still collect taxes on it,” said Sweet, a co-founder of the CRT, which was started to help California cattlemen secure conservation easements.

While Pearson claims the county would generate fewer tax dollars from the land, the owners continue to pay taxes on the land they own. And the ranch may become more profitable than ever, Sweet said. In return for selling the easement, the ranchers now have available funds to pay off the land, pay inheritance taxes or even purchase another ranch, he said.

“If you don’t have a big payment on the ranch, doesn’t that make the ranch more profitable?” Sweet questioned.


But operating next door to the easement, farmer Dave Roberti is cautiously concerned that management practices there could impact his own operation. He’s concerned the easement could open Bar One up for criticism from environmental organizations that help provide funding for similar agreements.

“When you have somebody else involved and in essence managing the land for you... they can come in and decide your cattle are causing erosion in the stream banks,” Roberti said. The president of the Plumas/Sierra County Farm Bureau said he’s most afraid that the easement owners might not approve of Bar One’s management practices over time and eventually bring someone else in to farm the land.

Sweet said the easement contract doesn’t restrict the ranchers’ right to use pesticides or manage the land, even though natural resources, including wildlife, are an important component of the ranch.

“We see people who are saying things are bad, when in fact they haven’t really read (the easement contract) or understand what the easement is about,” Sweet said.


Pearson has a copy of the contract, but he’s still skeptical of easements - at least in his county. He fears future generations will have their hands tied when it comes to the land of “little value.”

“They can’t borrow money against it,” he said. “They can’t sell it because it has no value, which means they’ll lose the property. That property won’t be in ranchland when their grandchildren are, say, middle age,” Pearson said. He speculates it will end up being sold to the government.

But the fact remains that easements are growing in popularity, particularly among ranchers in California.

“We’re overwhelmed by our success,” said Nita Vail, CRT’s executive director. “Ranching is just a tough business in California and ranchers are looking for tools to stay viable.”

Vail said an easement isn’t always the right choice for a rancher, but when it is, it gives the owner a sense of security for the land and industry’s future. An easement is also the preferred alternative to acquisition and development, CRT leaders said.

“People want to keep the land in ranching,” Sweet said. “This is one of the best ways of keeping the West as we know it.”


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