Helping people manage land better

Helping suburban ranchette owners manage land better; protecting farmland with land trusts.

Near Ellensburg, Tammy Yeakey of Washington's Department of Natural Resources is helping suburban landowners deal constructively with grazing and watershed issues.

Sun East is a residential subdivision in the foothills north of Ellensburg. The developers began selling 20-acre tracts in the 1970s, primarily as recreational homesites, as much of Sun East is without power or telephone lines.

Now there are over 125 landowners, and the last five years has seen an increase in full-time residents. Dan Dantzler, president of the Sun East landowners association, attributes the increase to declines in the quality of life in the Seattle area and in California.

Most landowners are urban transplants, often unfamiliar with the challenges of land stewardship in a brittle environment. Cattle and grazing are big issues, along with feral dogs, fire protection, road maintenance, erosion, weeds, wildlife, irresponsible recreation, aesthetics, and law enforcement.

For some time, cattleman Brent Minor has leased the grazing on the 5,500-acre tract, which is bordered by private land, state land, and the Wenatchee National Forest. With the increase in full-time residents comes an increase in the kind of incidents that are common when two ways of life come into contact. "There are so many different kinds of people, with so many different ideas," Minor says.

Some residents have fenced their property, sometimes without clear understanding of what will stop cattle. Perspectives about grazing management, about the situation, and about what should be done vary enormously.

In 1995 there was no grazing on the tract because of a decision by the Department of Natural Resources that manages the state land. The amount of standing dry grass at the end of the growing season made many residents scared to death of the fire danger, says Dantzler. "That was the best thing that ever happened to us."

Yeakey sees the prominence of the grazing issues as an educational opportunity. In November, she designed a meeting with the Sun East Landowners Association, raising the possibility of Coordinated Resource Management planning. Extension agent Tom Hoffman, NRCS district conservationist David Chain, and Dirk Veleke of the county weed board gave overviews of the kind of help and information available to landowners. Brent Minor answered questions and offered to give fence-building lessons to any interested landowner.

Twenty Sun East landowners attended. Tammy helped the group focus on what they thought a healthy watershed was. "What would you like to see out there? Nobody's opinion is wrong, or incorrect."

Yeakey enjoys the challenge of building community where neighbors frequently do not know each other, and many have never owned land before. She says small landowners are important, and they have just as much effect as the larger landowners. As someone who works in government, she feels that "we haven't passed on knowledge to smaller landowners."

The Inland Northwest Land Trust, based in Spokane, recently acquired a 1350-acre ranch near Harrington, Washington. The land trust has begun to involve the Harrington community in maintaining conservation values on the property.

The land trust movement is close to 100 years old in the U.S. The primary focus has been working with interested landowners in putting together conservation easements--which often prohibit certain types of residential development. In some cases there are estate-tax advantages to the landowning family. (Look for a detailed article on land trusts, and what they have been doing for landowners, in a future issue of Practical Holism.)

Claude Sappington is a member of the board of directors of the Inland Northwest Land Trust, and chairs the Ranch Committee of the organization. He says the geographic focus of the INLT is eight counties in northwest Washington and north Idaho. The trust was formed in 1991, and the 200 members want to see conservation values maintained on private land.

A North Carolina foundation donated the money to purchase the Harrington property, which has been managed under a lease agreement for cropping and grazing. The lease arrangement "doesn't get us where we want to be" with the property, says Sappington.

In July the INLT held a community meeting in Harrington. Thirty people helped develop consensus on the best possible outcomes for INLT's management of the property. The Ranch Committee of the land trust helped fold this vision into a holistic goal for the property, one that includes educational, conservation, agricultural, aesthetic, and community values as well as profit.

Jeff Goebel has helped facilitate some planning sessions. "The holistic process looked like a rational way to move ahead with a farm plan," says Sappington. "It's been frustrating for me personally, not being a farmer or rancher, but we've been learning."