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Rancher can trust his land is protected; Ranchland Trust offers rural landowners a new option to conserve prairie

Folklorist Jim Hoy now has peace of mind knowing generations to come can hear the meadowlarks’ song and the coyotes’ howl on his family’s ranch.

He also knows he has a quiet place to be buried amid a wide-open prairie where his grandchildren and their grandchildren can enjoy the outdoors.

A literature professor at Emporia State University, Hoy and his wife, Cathy, recently joined the Kansas Livestock Association in announcing the first conservation easement under the Ranchland Trust of Kansas.

The legally binding agreement assures the grasslands on Hoys’ 650-acre ranch near Cassoday will remain off limits to housing subdivisions, wind farms or any other construction.

It’s now designated to forever remain part of the increasingly rare Flint Hills prairie.

Nationwide trend

Hoy hopes his role as a grantor of the easement sets the example for rural landowners across the state.

“We want to encourage other ranchers to do what we’ve done,” he said. “I’ve already had others ask about it. I think we’re going to get a little ripple effect.”

More ranchers and farmers are turning to conservation easements, a voluntary agreement allowing a landowner to permanently limit development on their property while retaining private ownership. The trust usually holds the easement, which can specify that the land can continue to be ranched or farmed.

The concept has grown in popularity in recent years as cities sprawl, homes and acre-lawns pop up and other industrial developments encroach on both native grassland and restored swaths of prairie.

“There is more and more interest in it,” said Mike Beam, executive director of the nonprofit Ranchland Trust, a project of the KLA. “But as far as working ranchlands and farmlands in Kansas, it’s still a fairly new concept.”

Colorado, Wyoming, California and Montana are in the forefront of protecting grasslands for future generations. Nationwide, about 6.2 million acres now care under land trusts.

Aside from the new Ranchland Trust of Kansas, other, similar efforts are under way in the Sunflower State through the Nature Conservancy, the Kansas Land Trust and the Sunflower Land Trust.

Hoy drew on the Nature Conservancy’s expertise as he and the Ranchland Trust established his easement.

“It took some time going over it with our attorneys, but we did it,” he said.

Beam said Kansas might not be considered a state facing urban sprawl, but places like Butler County have seen significant acreage converted to housing in recent decades.

“We’ve also seen the Interstate 70 corridor become more and more populated,” he said. “Even in Chase and Greenwood counties, ranchers say you’ll see more of what they call ‘ranchettes,’ which aren’t full-time homes, but a place where someone might spend the weekend.”

‘Working landscapes’

The Hoys’ easement is not the first of its kind and won’t be the last, said Mike Collinge, Flint Hills rancher near Hamilton.

The prospect of preserving his own grassland is an attractive one, he added.

“I think if we want to continue to have open spaces and working landscapes, this is one of the best ways to continue that,” said Collinge, a trust board member.

The Walnut River cuts through the Hoys’ land of rolling prairie, timber and farm fields.

Hoy, 68, who lives just outside Emporia, was raised on the property, once his family’s stock ranch, which he now rents out. He spends weekdays as director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at ESU.

“We go down there every chance we get and spend the night in a cabin,” he said.

Part of the property was purchased by Hoy’s great-grandparents in the 1870s. Stories and memories enhance the place’s value.

Indians cut a trail across nearby land with their travois, a frame with long poles pulled by a horse.

“They would stop and ask my great-grandmother for food,” Hoy chronicled in a testimonial he wrote about the property while establishing the easement.

“On one occasion during the fall … my no-nonsense great-grandmother gave them a sick rooster that my soft-hearted great-grandfather had put off killing, and also the lights from a hog that had been butchered the day before.”

“The Indians pulled up some dead grass, started a fire on top of the storm cellar, pulled the feathers off the rooster, cooked their handout, and ate it half raw.”

Shielded from development

Hoy said he’s been approached by developers seeking some property near Interstate 35 for commercial use. The easement now guarantees that future offers won’t disrupt the land, which is partly unturned soil coated by native grasses as well as some former plowed acreage replanted to the deep-rooted big blue stem.

Beam said those involved with the Ranchland Trust hope to offer an alternative to farm and ranch families who wouldn’t mind capturing the development value of their property without developing it.

The state has provided limited funds in the past to pay a few landowners with purchase of easements. But this year’s Legislature, faced with a tight budget, dedicated the money elsewhere. Federal aid, too, is limited at this point.

“That’s ultimately our goal – to have a source of funds to encourage this,” Beam said, noting the state can leverage federal conservation dollars by offering matching money.

“A conservation easement is not for every landowner, but it is a tool that many are using to preserve their land,” Beam said, “and their legacy for future generations.”

By Sarah Kessinger – Harris News Service


17 May 2008