The following op-ed was published in the Jackson Hole News & Guide on Wednesday, September 12, 2012
I have a photograph of my husband Joe sitting on Enclosure peak. Below him, buttes and glacial moraines tell a story of change on the landscape. I admire the view, a clear line of sight back to Jackson Hole on a rare smoke-free summer day.
My focus too this summer has been on the valley; changes on the Ryan Ranch, located near the Skyline Ranch subdivision, have raised concerns among some community members who care about this very visible property. At The Nature Conservancy, we also care deeply about this place and its conservation legacy.
We are grateful to those pioneers who granted the easements that now protect this land. When they granted easements in 1974 and 1977, they had a vision of starting a conservation movement in the valley. We have all benefitted from their foresight. Imagine: even more subdivisions, stores and parking lots would have covered the valley without action by the original easement donors and the generous landowners who followed. Unprotected, the 220 acre Ryan property could have had up to 68 homes.
Today, over thirty years later, the Conservancy stewards 166 easements around Wyoming, safeguarding some 280,000 acres. We take very seriously our responsibility to steward all conservation easements with which we have been entrusted. We regularly and diligently enforce the easement rights that we hold.
I’ve been asked in the last weeks how the changes we see this summer on the Ryan property could happen if the ranch was protected. Conservation easements restrict certain rights on the land, restrictions that are specifically recorded in the easement document. The easement holder has the right and duty to enforce these restrictions. There are also retained private property rights that stay with the land, rights that belong to the landowner. As a result, there will be change over time on protected properties as retained rights are exercised
When Mr. Ryan purchased his property in 2010 and proposed plans to construct a new residence, restore wetland functions and construct landscape berms, our Wyoming-based team of experienced land protection specialists closely examined the project to be sure it was consistent with the easement. Because of our respect for the easement donors who have raised concerns, we have met with them and have taken extra steps to review our decision. We heard their concerns, and those of others in the community, but we have concluded the site development and earthwork now underway are permitted by the terms of the conservation easements.
There has been considerable concern about the house proposed on the Ryan Ranch. The original easement grantors retained the right to develop additional home sites. When they sold the property, the new buyers acquired the rights to build new homes; one of those home sites is being developed today.
Looking beyond this summer of changes which we know have been disruptive, there will be ecological benefits—one of the important values protected by the easement. Located in areas that were historic wetlands, the new ponds and wetlands will improve water quality and provide waterfowl and shorebird habitat. The berms will create a visual barrier between the building and the highway, and once seeded with native grasses, will be available for wildlife. Over 150 acres will remain open for grazing and haying. Ranching can continue to be an important use of the land. The Conservancy will remain active in monitoring the development of the Ryan Ranch and playing a constructive role there.
The Conservancy recognizes the importance of this property to the community. We are especially grateful to the easement donors who ensured this property will remain protected from uncontrolled residential and commercial development. We value the role of agriculture in Wyoming and appreciate that ecology and agriculture will co-exist on this land today and for future generations. We will steward the protections granted to us far into the future, while respecting those private property rights not encumbered by the easement. We believe in the long view: changes will continue to come to the valley but we all will continue to benefit from the foresight of the people who conserved this land.
Andrea Erickson Quiroz is the Wyoming State Director for The Nature Conservancy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.