Cowboy conservationists race to preserve ranches - Desire to prevent suburban sprawl inspires trust that buys rangeland rights

By Paul Rogers
The Mercury News


Jack Varian followed his dream of being a cowboy 50 years ago. (Pauline Lubens - Mercury News)

Out in the golden hills of southern Monterey County, two hours south of Salinas in an area so rural the county doesn't paint lines on the roads, Jack Varian has spent the past 41 years roping, branding and herding cattle.

Varian, a 67-year-old Republican with a worn cowboy hat and a scruffy dog who rides in the back of his Ford pickup, doesn't have a lot in common with big city environmentalists. In fact, like most cattle ranchers in the West, he doesn't really like environmental types all that much.

But lately Varian has found common ground with California's conservation community. Eyeing the state's relentless population growth, he has worked to preserve his 17,000-acre ranch near Parkfield (pop. 18), and hundreds like it around the state from being carved up into subdivisions, Wal-Marts and other trappings of suburban sprawl.

Varian is one of a growing number of ranchers who are working with a fledgling group, the California Rangeland Trust, to preserve cattle ranches as open space.

Unlike the Nature Conservancy and other open space organizations, the rangeland trust, based in Sacramento, is run entirely by ranchers. Buying development rights, the organization has permanently preserved more than 70,000 acres in the past five years, from the Sierra to the central coast.

``I see it every day,'' Varian said. ``People carving up the land. When you sell a ranch and break it up, you can never put it back together. What do you want the land to look like in five years, or 50, or 500?''

Where environmental organizations see preserving big western cattle ranches as vital for wildlife, watersheds and scenic views, the rangeland trust agrees. But the group also places the preservation of ranching as a viable business atop its list of priorities.

The group, which was founded by the California Cattlemen's Association in 1998 and helped with a $400,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, is slowly winning the trust of ranching families statewide.

Many applicants

Dozens of families, whose land totals roughly 500,000 acres -- an area 18 times the size of the city of San Francisco -- have applied to the trust to buy their development rights. With many ranchers facing debt, inheritance taxes and competition from foreign beef producers, there is more interest now than money to do open-space deals.

``You start to look at the value of rangeland in California versus the value of selling it for development,'' said Nita Vail, executive director of the rangeland trust. ``A lot of these guys want to stay in business. We're an option.''

The rangeland trust does not buy land outright.

Instead, it buys ``conservation easements.'' In other words, using money from state park bonds, private donations, even funding in the new federal farm bill, the trust buys from voluntary sellers and permanently retires the right to develop a ranch.

The easements, like buying timber rights or water rights, are held by the trust and recorded on the land's deeds. Even if another person buys the ranch, the land can only be used for ranching.

Meanwhile, the rancher sees his or her inheritance taxes fall and receives a large payment that often helps keep the cattle business viable.

That's what Varian did.

In 2001, he was $1.5 million in debt from years of low cattle prices, bad bets on interest rates, and the cost of acquiring neighboring ranches.

He also was worried that after he died, his four children would have to sell the ranch to pay inheritance taxes. So he sold a conservation easement to the Trust for Public Land in San Francisco, for $2.9 million, stipulating that he wanted the easement donated to the rangeland trust.

$1 million nest egg

After commissions and other fees, Varian retired his debts and was left with a $1 million nest egg, about the same as many other workers nearing 70 who may have saved for decades.

``Conservation easements are voluntary,'' he said, bouncing along a dirt road on his ranch earlier this week. ``If you truly want to be in the cattle business and you don't have ulterior motives of being a developer, why not do them? The greatest way to have open space in perpetuity is to have the people living on the land be able to make a profit.''

Varian's ranch is right out of central casting.

Located in the southern Diablo Range, near the San Luis Obispo County line, the property is studded with oaks, junipers, digger pines and flowering buckeye trees. Other than the Varians, who bought it in 1962, the ``V-6'' Ranch, named for Varian, his wife, Zera, and their two sons and two daughters, has had only one other owner since California statehood in 1850.

The property is so scenic that in 1985 Marlboro photographed an advertisement there.

``I didn't want to be in the photos because I don't like smoking,'' he said, smiling. ``But I let my horses and cattle in it.''

From its highest hilltop, a visitor can see the snow-capped Sierra. To the west, the Coast Range is visible, just over which lies Hearst Castle.

Varian is the son of Sigurd Varian, who, with his brother Russell, founded Varian Associates, a pioneering Silicon Valley electronics firm, in 1949.

But Jack Varian wanted to be a cowboy ever since he worked on a friend's family ranch one summer in 1950 in San Jose's eastern hills. He bought his first ranch for $90,000 with a loan from his parents, and never looked back.

Today, he rotates his 1,500 cattle among 48 pastures to reduce overgrazing. He plants willow and cottonwood saplings along stream banks. When he found ground squirrels were drowning in his cattle troughs, he put in large rocks so they could climb out.

He earns extra money selling memberships to his land to hunt deer, wild boar and quail. He also sponsors cattle drives, bringing down about 25 ``city slickers'' four times a year.

``This ranch is like a living person,'' he said. ``It responds to good care and bad care. You can feel its pulse. It has given me a good life. It has given my wife and my family a good life. And normally we reward that by selling it off. What about the other critters who rely on it, the deer and the ground squirrels? Nobody is sitting at the table for them.''

Rate of development

California's population is now 35 million, larger than Canada's. According to the state Department of Conservation, grazing land in California is being converted to urban development at the rate of about 13,000 acres a year.

Some private property rights groups are lukewarm.

``I like the idea of selling easements to friendly organizations that will encourage keeping ranches in production,'' said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, in Battle Ground, Wash. ``But I think they should have an end to them, say 30 years, so you allow some flexibility and a family or society could modify it downstream.''

Darrel Sweet, president of the California Cattlemen's Association, sees it another way.

``If grandpa sells off half the ranch for a subdivision, you are not going to get that back either,'' he said.

Environmentalists regularly battle cowboys over endangered species, streams and other issues, particularly on public lands. But here, both sides seem to agree.

``We've disagreed on a lot of things,'' said Johanna Wald, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. ``But we've both always said there's a common concern for the land and for people who love it. And this is proof.''

Similar cowboy open space organizations have sprung up in the West, including the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, and the Malpais Borderlands Group, founded by ranchers in New Mexico and Arizona.

As Varian sees it, cowboys are the best stewards of ranches. And they are in a race against time, from Santa Barbara to the Sierra foothills, to not repeat the sprawl of Silicon Valley, which consumed many Santa Clara Valley orchards and ranches under asphalt from 1950 to 1970.

``We've got an opportunity that's not going to last for very long,'' he said. ``Some parts of California are already gone. But a lot of them aren't and they are worth preserving.''


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site