The Richest Life

The Richest Life

For some ranchers, it's the assets they leave on the land that represent the true meaning of legacy.

The Richest Life

For some ranchers, it’s the assets they leave on the land that represent the true meaning of legacy.

The Richest Life
The conservation easement on the Hardeman Barns and Meadow protects 103 acres of open space just outside Wilson at the base of Teton Pass.

Bob Lucas soaks in a solitary moment while thousands of other folks across Jackson Hole have gone to bed with dreams of a powder morning on their minds. At the edge of a pasture, pitch black save for a constellation of starlight above, it is the last night of February. Mist pours out of Lucas’ mouth into the frigid air as he exhales. Beside him, a mama beef cow and her bawling newborn calf.

His bare, calloused hands sterilizing a snipped umbilical chord with iodine and laying down a mat of straw, he tends to his delivery, the first of what will be hundreds of young additions to his Angus herd. He’s playing the role of rancher-midwife, though what he’s really nursing, observers say, is a fading tradition.

As Bob and Kate Lucas will tell you, there are many times, having watched scores of rural neighbors pass from the scene, when they feel like an imperiled species—more uncommon even than the wolves and grizzly bears with whom they sometimes tangle.

For readers who don’t cotton to nostalgia in the twenty-first century, believing it prosaic, here’s a truth to consider, a fact the Lucases refuse to wear on their cowboy sleeve: If they had wanted to, they could be multimillionaires today, spending winters at a posh, gated retirement community in the Sun Belt and returning to a summer home along the links at Teton Pines, one of Jackson Hole’s most exclusive luxury golf enclaves.

But in order to realize the fortune, they would have had to cash out their land—hundreds of acres of prime real estate in South Park—likely to developers. It would’ve meant giving up their livestock, too. And it’s a kind of what-if endeavor that sixty-year-old Bob Lucas ultimately rejected. Why? Because he regards it as a violation of both his personal values and fourth-generation heritage.

Lucas has sympathy for ranchers who have gotten out of the cattle business and, in some cases, been forced to sell their beloved pieces of terra firma due to tough economics. Market forces, commodity prices that haven’t kept pace with rising operation costs, ranch kids not wanting to toil as hard as their parents, tensions with environmentalists, and the hassles of trying to run cows through fragmented landscapes—all have taken their toll.

For Lucas, he thinks of his rancher parents who imparted a bit of wisdom almost half a century ago, well before Jackson Hole became discovered as a fashionable place for affluent lifestyle pilgrims. “They [his parents] used to say it’s more important to be good by your word than gauging success only on making all kinds of money, because money can’t buy happiness,” he says. “I’ve had people tell me I’m crazy. But you know what? I do feel rich, because I’m still able to live my dream.”

To keep the dream alive, the Lucases not long ago struck an innovative deal with the Jackson Hole Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy. In exchange for putting their historic South Park ranch, the U Lazy U, under a conservation easement—ensuring it will remain as pastoral open space and wildlife habitat forever—they gained title to six thousand acres of private and public grazing lands near Dubois held by the Nature Conservancy. Now, every summer, they truck and turn out their Jackson Hole-born beef cows at Ramshorn Ranch, watching over them vigilantly on horseback.

A conservation easement is a restriction that a property owner voluntarily attaches to the deed, limiting what kind of development can occur. It’s a tool, replete with estate tax advantages, that almost single-handedly is responsible for protecting the scenic tapestry of private land that local residents, visitors, and the valley’s iconic wildlife treasure.

The Lucases’ U Lazy U fronts two miles of the Snake River and has a spring creek running through it. It’s home to elk, moose, mule deer, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, herons, and river otters, among many other animals.

Here in Jackson Hole, the bumper sticker “Cows Not Condos” isn’t a hollow slogan. The Teton County Commission is now wrestling with the details of a new comprehensive land-use plan—one of the most foresighted across the West—that tries to keep large pieces of private land intact. Conservation easements, incentives offered for clustering development, and allowing ranchers to divest tiny pieces of their land to generate income to stay afloat are all part of the mix.

“We must always remember that the conservation coin has two sides,” says Dennis Glick, cofounder of the Bozeman, Montana-based FutureWest, a think-tank devoted to land-use planning. “One side identifies lands that are critical for protecting the natural assets that make a community like Jackson Hole special. The other side points to lands that are appropriate for development to accommodate growth. Fortunately, science is making us smarter to differentiate one side of the coin from the other.”

What residents of Jackson Hole often fail to realize is that the kinds of discussions occurring in Teton County are far more sophisticated than almost anywhere else. “Regionally and perhaps West-wide, Teton County has done an exceptional job of protecting private land compared to many of its neighbors,” Glick says. “They’ve done it through the work of the land trust and local government planning along with nongovernmental conservation groups like the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance watchdogging growth.”

In contrast, Teton County, Idaho, just on the other side of Teton Pass, has dealt with an onslaught of developers targeting second-home buyers during the housing boom of the early and mid-2000s and also with a steady stream of middle-income workers who were priced out of the Jackson Hole real estate market. Combine this population influx with county planning and zoning regulations that were criticized as lax during the development boom, and the result is scattershot sprawl. Many of the housing developments that sprung up on former ranchland during the last decade turned into “ghost subdivisions” when the housing market collapsed. As Glick notes, another bumper sticker could read: “Sprawl is Forever.”

Private lands comprise just 3 percent of Teton County, Wyoming. In the wake of inward population migration, development pressure has skyrocketed along with real estate values. Undeniable is that an acre of land has a far greater amenity value for people willing to pay for homes with pretty views than the worth of grass-feeding a cow.

Still, the list of families and properties on the land trust easement roster is embedded in the lore of Jackson Hole and the people behind them are deserving of veneration, says Laurie Andrews, executive director of the Jackson Hole Land Trust, a Jackson-based nonprofit founded in 1980. She mentions the Walton Ranch (1,840 acres) and the Hansen Ranch (211 acres) protecting Teton views along Highway 22; the Hardeman Barns and Meadow (103 acres) outside of Wilson; the U Lazy U along the Snake River corridor south of Jackson; the Huidekoper Ranch (138 acres); Lower Snake River Ranch (440 acres); Indian Springs Ranch South (624 acres); Poodle Ranch (241 acres); Trail Creek Ranch (280 acres); Red Rock Ranch (473 acres) in the Gros Ventre mountains; Hatchet and Fir Creek ranches (another 1,000 acres) in Buffalo Valley; Fish Creek Dude Ranch (381 acres); the Jenkins Ranch (391 acres); Bar BC Ranch (507 acres); and the R Lazy S, which enacted an easement only a year after the land trust was founded.

These ranches are flung far and wide—more than 140 in the valley and beyond encompassing 25,000 acres. Put them together and they create a mosaic of some of the most attractive—to both people and wildlife—pieces of real estate in the valley.

Andrews says that as notable as the millions upon millions of dollars of property the Lucases and other families collectively have forsaken by placing land under conservation easements is the amount of joy and use communities and wildlife get from the lands.

While crown jewel federal lands like Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the National Elk Refuge, and six large national forests get most of the attention in the 18-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, private lands do represent 32 percent of the GYE land mass. And private lands often form the crucial threads that knit the bigger landscapes together.

Tom Segerstrom, the Jackson Hole Land Trust’s staff biologist, has tried to amass a compelling scientific case for why easements matter. “What would Jackson Hole look like if there weren’t any conservation easements in the valley?” he asks.

“That’s a tough one to imagine, because many of the ranching families in the valley may have kept their ranches intact even without an easement on their property. So it isn’t necessarily that we would look like a Colorado resort town, say, another Aspen or Vail. But from the study that we did a few years ago, we can deduce that there would be 3.6 times as many houses and 6.4 times as many roads per acre than there are today on each conservation property.”

Over the years, Segerstrom and a wider circle of government and independent scientists have tried to map the crucial corridors that wildlife need to navigate between blocks of remaining private land habitat found within fragmented landscapes.

In the absence of easements, with more than three and a half times as many homes, and six and a half times more roads per acre, even an amateur naturalist can con

jecture on the consequences for species like moose and elk, to say nothing of the pastoral views beloved by all.

Mike Clark, a private land conservation expert who spent more than a decade leading the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, has a soft spot for ranchers and farmers. He notes that between 1990 and 2001, the Interior West experienced a tidal wave of new residents.

In just that single decade, fully one-quarter of all private ranches and farms 400 acres or larger changed hands, turning over in many cases from old-guard families to wealthy buyers and developers. Just in Greater Yellowstone, it affected nearly 1.5 million acres. Within twenty years, that figure will swell by 50 percent.

“Many of the new owners are coming from the city and don’t have the same ethic that the previous residents did,” Clark says. “They see nothing wrong with carving up parcels and converting them into patchworks of bricks, mortar, and asphalt.” Winter ranges that used to support elk on the outskirts of many communities, for instance, have been inundated by subdivisions leaving wapiti displaced.

Clark’s conclusions are based on data collected by researchers with the Center of the American West that examined trends affecting agricultural land in ten counties throughout the Greater Yellowstone region. Teton County, Wyoming, wasn’t included because the challenges that come with our exceptionally high real estate prices are unique.

Throughout the rest of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the biggest changeover in ownership involves traditional ranchers selling to affluent amenity buyers, some of whom raise cattle as a hobby, or use the land for hunting or as liquid investments. The upshot is that many of them may have conservation outcomes in mind but, the study notes, “It is also difficult to judge the stability of the new ownership regime. While continuity of family ownership across generations is often a central goal of traditional ranch operations, we do not know how long new amenity owners are likely to hold onto large properties, nor how the transition from one amenity owner to another, or among investors, is likely to play out.”

Scientists at Montana State University in Bozeman prepared a different analysis based on development patterns to date. They concluded that if rising development pressure continues without smart land-use planning in place, 40 percent of private land habitat, including some that is irreplaceable for a wide range of species, will be negatively impacted by 2020. But, with regulations that recognize the biological needs of wildlife, the loss could be reduced to 26 percent.

There are also economic arguments that can be made, Glick of FutureWest says. Ranches and farmland are the least costly for taxpayers to service, as compared to subdivisions that require police and fire protection, public works, schools, and infrastructure maintenance such as roads. And whether it’s the Lucases, Hansens, or Huidekopers, landowners placing conservation easements on their property are protecting a new emerging asset class called “ecosystem services.” Clean water.

Habitat for public wildlife. Green spaces and views that inspire and enhance property values around them.

“Agriculture in the West is known to be the most effective and least expensive type of open space and habitat conservation, and it’s something we’ve seen here in Jackson as well,” Segerstrom says, noting the benefits of having policies in place

“You can see the role that agriculture has played in the long-term stewardship of conservation easements,” Segerstrom says. “These are many of the oldest and largest easements in the valley, and many of the ranchers that placed those easements still ranch their land today. They take pride in their identity as ranchers, and are dedicated and invested in the health of their land, now and into the future.”

I ask Lucas after he pulled an all-nighter to deliver calves: What is it that makes him excited to rise out of bed every morning before dawn?

“When I was a teenager, I drove past those Tetons and I took them for granted. That’s what you do when you are young,” he said. “But every day that I get up now, I realize how spectacular they are and how fortunate I am to live in this place. To be honest, I don’t know what it would mean to be retired from doing something you love. I’ve always felt that by having more to do, by having a reason to be out there every day in this country, that I’m more blessed than someone who just lounges around. I feel closer to creation the older I get.”