How do wildlife habitat and agricultural lands coexist? The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust says quite well
National Agriculture Day is right around the corner on Tuesday, March 21, and to honor the annual holiday Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan spoke with Jessica Crowder, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust. The organization does a lot of work with ranchers, wildlife and the land in Wyoming.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Caitlin Tan: National Agriculture day is this month. Jessica, can tell us a little history of the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust, and how it relates to agriculture in Wyoming?
Jessica Crowder: Absolutely. So the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust was built through a group of producers in the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, who recognized that there was a need, and that need was to provide an entity that could help landowners in meeting their goals for conservation and conserving agricultural lands. And so it’s a group of forward-thinking landowners that came together and said, “This is important, and we should form a land trust, and that land trust should be focused on agricultural lands and the conservation of those lands.”
So that's how we began. So we've been in existence for roughly 23 years now. And in that timeframe, our organization has worked with 89 families across the state of Wyoming to conserve almost 300,000 acres of working agricultural lands in our state.
CT: Wow. Agriculture land and wildlife habitat are linked together. How does that affect your work?
JC: So agricultural lands are really important for several reasons. Of course, food and fiber production is one of those reasons, but they also are very rich and important for wildlife habitat and providing fisheries habitat; the public benefit that exists from those lands is immense. Part of that is because many of our private lands are situated on highly-productive lands and are managed by people who care about the land and have a connection with that land. When we have conservation easements on working agricultural lands, the management of those lands is done in a way that benefits and could complement wildlife and wildlife habitats.
In Wyoming, we just have such iconic wildlife. And we all enjoy being able to enjoy those wildlife, to watch those wildlife, to hunt and to fish, and also to get out into the open spaces where our wildlife roam. Agricultural spaces are just another part of Wyoming and keeping those iconic species on the ground and intact.
CT: Now, what does it take to make this happen to conserve some of this land? You mentioned that you work with a lot of ranch families across the state. Can you talk about some of the different partners?
JC: We are a small organization, so we really do depend on partners across the state. What that ends up looking like for us is a really great opportunity to work with people from all over. We get to work with landowners, of course, we get to work with state agencies, federal agencies, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and then we get to work with a bunch of private funders. These are folks who know a lot about wildlife, for example, and have wildlife interest and data. We also get to work with people who know a lot about other portions of those public benefits that private lands provide, such as water – the ability to store and have clean water. So we get to work with people in a multitude of different ways to conserve these lands through conservation easements.
CT: Now, do you ever get any pushback on this work? And how do you respond?
JC: So a conservation easement is a voluntary agreement with landowners to preserve their agricultural lands. In our case, agriculture is our priority. And that agreement is, in its simplest form, where the landowner either sells or donates their development rights to our land trust, and it's perpetual, meaning it's forever. So it's a very big decision. With that very big decision come families who really just do have that deep connection with the land, who are interested in allowing agriculture to exist on that land forever. That's a really great space to work in, but forever can be a little bit scary sometimes. So we get a little bit of pushback on the idea of perpetuity, and we get a little bit of pushback on some other portions and pieces of conservation easements depending on what they entail. But, in its simplest form, we really do want to work with landowners in a voluntary way to help them meet their goals for agriculture, their goals for conservation, and a conservation easement is a private property right. It's one tool in the toolbox, really, that landowners have on their private property. And if they'd like to take that action and preserve that agricultural land forever, they certainly should have the ability to do so.
CT: So talking about conservation easements, how do you feel like they can be a way to preserve agricultural heritage in Wyoming?
JC: Conservation easements do provide a financial benefit to landowners, and that can be in the form of, if you sell your development rights to a land trust, there's a financial benefit there, and then there's a tax benefit. The reason that's important is because when you have people on the land, who would like to keep agriculture on that land in the long term, and they put a conservation easement on that property, and then they also have some economic benefit to that, then you really are providing an opportunity for a family to perhaps expand their operation to put some conservation or restoration projects on the ground. You're providing an opportunity for that family to pass their ranch down to the next generation. That's really important for continuing food production in our country. I think that we are seeing a loss of agricultural lands at a much faster pace now than we have in recent years, following COVID-19, and it's really important to keep those lands available and to keep them available for future generations to be able to produce agricultural products on those lands, and a conservation easement is one tool to make that happen.
CT: Now, Jessica, kind of a softball question. How do you recommend someone listening in Wyoming could go celebrate National Agriculture Day on March 21?
JC: If it were me and if I could do whatever I wanted on March 21, I would probably find a big field of open space with agricultural land and get on a horse and ride across it, and end the day with a great big steak.
CT: Well, that sounds pretty good to me. Jessica Crowder, executive director of Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust, thanks for joining us.
JC: Thank you so much, and I really appreciate it. Have a great National Ag Day.
To hear last year’s interview with former News Director Bob Beck and Jessica Crowder for National Ag Day, click here.