Conservation easement will preserve Campbell Ranch in face of growing development

Montrose Daily Press, May 28, 2022—For five generations, the Campbell family has ranched along the North Fork Valley floor between Hotchkiss and Paonia, tending to hay crops and cattle — and by extension, preserving riparian areas, woods, meadows that strongly contribute to the scenic value of the entire area.

Those values are now formally protected.

The Colorado West Land Trust and the Campbells completed a conservation easement for 410 acres or ranchland at the end of April.

Easements, which are a voluntary agreement to restrict property use, allow landowners to continue their operations, so the ranching isn’t being sacrificed in the name of preservation. Instead, both values stay intact during a time of intense growth and development in rural areas.

“We thought it was important to conserve the property, not knowing what would happen to it in the future,” Calvin Campbell, one of the fifth-generation ranchers, said in a provided announcement.

“The way the valley is becoming discovered, there’s less of an incentive to be in agriculture — we could cash in tomorrow but then it’s gone forever. I don’t know if we’re ever going to see a time when they tear down houses to raise food, but we figured that this is one piece that we can save from ever getting to that point.”

The Campbells took note when another family partnered with the land trust for an easement, said Ilana Moir, Colorado West Land Trust director of conservation.

“They’re fifth-generation ranchers and wanted to make sure the property could be passed down to the next generation and beyond,” she said.

“The real estate market has brought to light the importance of conserving working landscapes, wildlife habitat and scenic land,” Moir added. “The development pressures we’re seeing have an impact on how we use the land in Western Colorado.”

If the nonprofit — one of the first agricultural land trusts in the United States — can have even a small hand in preserving historic uses, that’s a victory, Moir said.

The Campbell Ranch may play a larger role in overall preservation, however: it joins 52 other conservation easements within a 5-mile radius, totaling 5,000 acres.

According to CWLT’s information, the ranch’s conservation value is extraordinary: lower montane riparian forests and woodlands, wetland meadows, irrigated pastures and semi-desert shrublands. The Campbells used hay crop and pasture management methods over time to improve soil health and support their cattle — efforts that earned them the Excellence in Rangeland Conservation Award from the Society for Range Management.

Plus, the ranch provides crucial forage, cover, breeding habitat and migration corridors for wildlife and birds.

The CWLT’s easements encourage lands to continue as working ranches or farms; the landowner retains discretion over the choice of crops or livestock.

“We still feel that it’s a very important part of western Colorado, so we’re happy to work with farmers and ranchers,” Moir said.

The land trust helps guide landowners through the process of a conservation easement. The nonprofit holds a given conservation easement in perpetuity and enforces the terms of the agreement going forward, in order to meet its longstanding responsibility to ensure properties always remain as open space.

Landowners benefit through the state’s tax credit program that is available for conservation easements.

After a state appraisal that is used to ensure the donations meet requirements, landowner-donors can receive a tax credit certificate from the Colorado Division of Conservation.

The certificate allows them to claim a tax credit on state income tax. This is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of state income tax liability, according to the Division of Conservation, and the tax credit certificate can be sold, because it is transferrable.

The certificate for easements donated in 2021 are issued for 90% of the donated value, up to $5 million (per donation). Prior years’ tax credit certificates were issued for 75% of the first $100,00 of donated value and 50% of any remaining donated value, up to $5 million (per donation).

The division’s website in explaining the 2021 tax credit cap states it has reserved $45 million in tax credits for conservation easements donated last year, due to legislation passed then and increasing applications for the credit.

“Although the annual cap for 2021 has been completely reserved, $15 million of the annual cap for 2022 is available for conservation easements donated in 2021,” the information states.

“This so-called ‘wait list’ provides for tax credits to be issued from the next year’s cap, for use beginning in the next year. In this way, eligible taxpayers may continue to apply for the tax credit after the annual cap has been reached. The process for issuing tax credits will not change. Applications will continue to be processed in the order received. Tax credit certificates will continue to be issued, regardless of the cap year, without additional delay.”

Moir said that the ability to sell tax credit certificates tends to benefit properties under conservation easement, because many landowners will pour the proceeds right back into their farm or ranch.

“It’s a really great way for landowners to build on the farm or ranch they have,” Moir said.

The Campbell Ranch easement took about two years to complete. Great Outdoors Colorado money was awarded to help cover some of the transaction costs.

“This has been a wonderful project to work on. It’s a multi-generation family. I love working with people who have a strong connection to the land,” Moir said.

Not to mention, the ranch — visible from a scenic byway — is simply beautiful.

“Everyone who now drives this highway can see this conserved property always look like that,” Moir said.

The land trust has so far conserved more than 126,000 acres in Delta, Montrose, Mesa, Ouray and San Miguel counties.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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