Conservation easement protects Yampa above Stagecoach, includes public fishing access
The Routt County Board of Commissioners approved the purchase of a conservation easement last month that will prevent a 2.4-mile stretch of the Yampa River near Phippsburg from being divided up into 13 different waterfront lots.
The easement on the SKCK Ranch will add 476 acres to four other conservation easements in the area and will protect almost all of the Yampa River from Phippsburg to Stagecoach State Park — a roughly 7-mile stretch surrounded by nearly 2,300 acres of land.
“From the county’s perspective, one of the ways we look at it is how many 35-acre parcels with a house did we prevent from happening,” said Commissioner Tim Corrigan.
The conservation easement is part of the county’s Purchase for Development Rights Program that sets up agreements with landowners and land conservation organizations to prevent open space in the county from being developed.
Corrigan explained that the program is meant to provide cash flow to land-rich ranchers who need some extra money to run their operation in exchange for a promise not to develop on their land. Rather than ranchers selling off parts of their land as lucrative 35-acre parcels — the smallest sized property that allows a single-family home in much of the county — the program hopes to preserve the land as agricultural open space forever.
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“Every one of these conservation easements has in essence allowed a family ranch to stay a working ranch,” Corrigan said.
The program was first approved in 1996 when Routt County voters passed a 1-mill property tax to fund the program. It was reapproved for 20 years and upped to a 1.5-mill tax in 2005. The tax will come up again for a vote in 2025.
Since the first agreement was reached in 1997, the program has protected nearly 60,000 acres in the county from development at the cost of about $30 million.
Each deal requires the landowner to work with another conservation organization, such as the Colorado Cattleman’s Association Land Trust, the Yampa Valley Land Trust or The Nature Conservancy, and donate a portion of their development rights. On average, the program ends up paying about half the cost of the easement but, sometimes, much less.
The easement on the SKCK Ranch will cost the program about $243,500 plus an additional $25,000 in transaction costs. This is just under half the projected value of the easement, with Colorado Parks and Wildlife kicking in about $63,000 and the ranch’s owner making a $194,000 land donation.
Corrigan said the donation from the land owner often negates the taxes incurred from the rest of the money the rancher receives for selling the easement. If the ranch were to sell in the future, the easement, which includes the property’s water rights, stays intact.
The agreements need to clear two levels of approval that can often take years to work their way through the citizen board that reviews purchase for development rights applications. This project on the SKCK Ranch received tier two approval from commissioners last month.
Commissioners also approved five other potential projects through the first level of the program, but it could take at least another year before final approval. These six deals are estimated to cost nearly $3 million.
The unique thing about the easement on the SKCK Ranch is that Colorado Park and Wildlife is also pursuing an access easement that would open up that stretch of the Yampa River to public fishing.
“This property will provide seasonal public fishing access on the Yampa River from eight vehicle access points off of (Routt) County Road 12,” wrote Kris Middledorf in a letter to commissioners seeking support for the easement.
The land is important to preserve because of the long stretch of riparian areas along the river that are some of the most biodiverse habitats in the state. Middledorf said the area would be controlled by CPW as a state wildlife area to protect the habitat and provide for public use while still allowing hay production.
This kind of public access is uncommon among the other easements the program has funded, Corrigan said. It has actually been a point of criticism from some and could be part of the discussion when the program goes back to voters in 2025.
“I have heard a number of people that say when this PDR levy comes up for reauthorization, that there will probably be more consideration given to recreational access on future easements,” Corrigan said. “I don’t disagree with that, and I think that will be an interesting conversation that will take place.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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