A business of renewal, an enterprise of hope
A business of renewal, an enterprise of hope
In the morning, when the meadowlark sings and the cottonwoods quake, Jay Fetcher knows it was worth it. His ranch, which stretches along the Elk River north of Steamboat Springs, is noprotected by a conservation easement. It will remain intact and undivided, its cultural and environmental values in place, for generations to come. “This is a productive ranch, not just a pretty place,” reflects Jay, who runs 300 head of cattle with his wife, Gael. “We wanted to see it stay the same. We wanted to make a contribution to the community and the environment – and this was the best way to do that.” For his efforts, Jay and his neighbor and friend Lynne Sherrod have become nationally recognized leaders in land protection. They’ve helped hundreds of ranchers, faced with high land values and development pressures, protect thousands of acres across the state, not just in the Yampa Valley. Their commitment stems from their deep-seated connection to the land, their neighbors and their community. Both recognized at an early age the beauty and rewards of ranch life – its cyclical nature, its power of rebirth, its deep disappointments and its personal rewards. The Fetcher family arrived in the Yampa Valley in the 1940s, when they bought the ranch they still own. Jay’s father, John, helped found the Steamboat ski area in the 1960s and is an engineer specializing in water resources. Lynne’s family settled near Toponas in the latter part of the 19th century. She and her husband, Del, run the family ranch, a viable business enterprise. Their way of life is being threatened as the cultural and environmental landscape of the Yampa Valley changes. Nehomes appear on ridges and in meadows, where cattle used to graze. Ranches are broken up and sold as ranchettes. Wasn’t there a way to balance the need for open spaces, the ranching heritage – the very reason why so many people came here in the first place – with the growing demands for housing? In the mid-1990s, Jay and Lynne set out to answer that question. Their solution didn’t come a moment too soon. Since 1987, Colorado has lost 1.5 million acres of farm and ranch land to development. In 1996 alone, the state lost 200,000 acres. When farm and ranch land disappears, there is often a pronounced, negative impact on local economies. A study conducted by Colorado State University and the Routt County Extension Office concluded that tourists place great value on open farm and ranch land. Forty-six percent of 400 tourists interviewed for the study said they would consider destinations other than Steamboat if the valley’s remaining open spaces were developed. Respondents also placed ranches in second place behind mountains as a consideration of scenic beauty. The study pegged the value of the valley’s ranch land at $15 to $25 per day per visitor, equating to $5.9 million to $9.8 million annually. “This is equivalent to an investment value of $11,500 per acre around Steamboat Springs,” says C.J. Muckloof the extension office. “This makes the agricultural image worth more than the actual production of livestock and commodities around Steamboat Springs.” Knowing that something needed to be done, Jay helped to form the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust in 1999 and serves on its board of directors. Lynne is the trust’s full-time executive director. The trust helps landowners with estate planning and emphasizes the use of conservation easements, which remove development rights from properties and provide estate tax benefits for cash-strapped, but land-rich, farmers and ranchers. The organization is the first of its kind in the country. “This is a land trust of landowners, by landowners and for landowners,” Lynne says. To date, Lynne estimates the trust has helped about 60 ranching families protect about 120,000 acres of land. The trust has also provided the blueprint for other states to follow. The trust stresses the importance of production agriculture. “In doing so, it achieves all of society’s goals: preservation of open space, wildlife habitat, scenic views and production of food and fiber,” Jay explains. Word of the trust’s success has spread. In recent years, the work of Jay and Lynne has been featured in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, the Denver Post and on National Public Radio. Recently, Lynne appeared on a PBS documentary. “It has been a surprise to us all homuch attention the trust has generated; no one had a clue that there would be so many folks interested in a bunch of ranchers starting their own land trust,” Lynne says. “Land protection is bigger than any single person, more important than the work of one or two people,” Jay says. “Ultimately, it’s about doing what’s right for you and your community. It’s about the next generation, and many generations to come.”Eric Grant is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Oak Creek. His family homesteaded near Hayden in the late 1800s, and he has a deep love for the Yampa Valley.