From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 22 - August 29, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

County considers buying conservation easements

by Cat Urbigkit

The Sublette County Commission agreed Friday to create a working group to examine the idea of having the county develop a program to purchase development rights (conservation easements) on local ranches using the revenue gained from the current natural gas boom.

The commission took action after hearing a presentation by the Green River Valley Land Trust (GRVLT) at Friday's commission meeting in Pinedale. Once the presentation was over and the three commissioners all reacted positively to it, trust members presented a list of candidates for the "working group" which the commission then promptly appointed: John Andrikopoulos, Jo Crandall, Nancy Espenscheid, Bernie Holz and Albert Sommers.

Andrikopoulos of GRVLT gave the presentation to the commission, proposing that the county "invest some of its current windfall from oil and gas tax revenues" by purchasing agricultural conservation easements from "land rich but cash poor" ranchers. Andrikopoulos emphasized that the program would be a way to preserve agriculture in the county, while noting that Sublette County was recently ranked as the 13th most threatened by development of 263 counties in the West.

While all three county commissioners spoke positively of the idea of implementing a program to purchase these conservation easements, there is a question of the legality of the county doing so, since Wyoming statutes don't specifically address such an idea.

Wyoming law grants that the county has the authority to purchase property for county use and provides that the county can acquire real estate, but specific enabling legislation allowing the county to purchase development rights does not exist.

"Sublette County would be a pioneer in this area," Andrikopoulos said, suggesting the county take action to get an attorney general's opinion on the matter. The commission agreed to do so, but must first get an opinion from its own county attorney.

Andrikopoulos proposed that the county program would be organized under a review board that would rank conservation easements for purchase according to a set criteria and make its recommendations to the county commission.

The possible ranking criteria suggested by GRVLT included: agricultural productivity; development pressures on the land; condition of the land in general; proximity to other preserved lands; leverage matching funds from other sources; and the cost of the conservation easement.

Once a rancher has worked through the program and sold the conservation easement to the county, the GRVLT would accept the monitoring responsibility for the easement.

Commissioner Betty Fear expressed some concern with the criteria, and that wealthy ranchers could be eligible to participate.

Andrikopoulos said the ranches his group would like to see included in the program are the ones that are not "ingratiated with other forms of income."

Commission Chairman Bill Cramer suggested that the criteria needs to include the scenic value of the ranch as well.

Commissioner Gordon Johnston said, "I think this is a great idea and I'm ready to appoint the board right now."

Fear said, "I think it is no secret that I would certainly be in favor of something like this."

Cramer said one of the best things the county can do "is to preserve what we have." He suggested that by initiating the program, the commissioners will learn what the public thinks about the idea, but emphasized that the county hasn't agreed to fund anything yet.

"I'd like to know what the public has to say about it," Cramer said.

It was a unanimous vote of the commission to establish the working group and appoint its members as described above.

The working group is charged with gathering community input, developing the structure of the program, including the ranking criteria and proposed funding levels, and reporting back to the commissioners before the end of the year.

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