I grew up in the 1990s watching the hay fields between Sheridan and Big Horn, Wyoming, sprout houses. By the time I graduated from Big Horn School, golf carts zipping over manicured greens had replaced the tractors pulling balers through waist high grass. Large houses on large lots, each with a square green lawn laid out in front of it like a door mat, squatted amidst the wildflowers and sagebrush on the slopes above Little Goose Creek.
Once largely used for farming and ranching, western private lands are transforming. Population growth, energy development, recreation and tourism, changing food markets, drought, and other factors all put pressure on open private lands. In many cases, the highest economic value for those lands comes via development. In this issue of Western Confluence, we explore alternatives to sprawl for private lands in the West.
Not only do private lands grow our food and fiber, and underpin the agricultural economies of rural communities, but they provide less obvious public benefits as well. They often span the creeks and rivers running through higher, drier public lands, so they shelter big game winter ranges and migration corridors, bird and fish habitat, and watersheds. They protect open spaces and sustain rural culture. About half the land in the Rocky Mountain West is privately owned, and how those private lands are managed in the coming years will shape the landscapes and character of the West.
Articles in this issue explore ways landowners are keeping their properties intact. We examine conservation easements from several angles. We learn how landowners partner with conservation organizations and wildlife agencies to create management plans that reward them for protecting wildlife. We meet landowners who take on side jobs, even conducting business by smart phone from the saddle. Landowners lease their property for everything from telecommunication towers to fossil quarries. And new tools are emerging. Economists at the University of Wyoming are calculating the value to society of ecosystem services like pollinator habitat and stream flows, so that we can adequately compensate the landowners who protect those resources.
Ultimately, at the center of the private lands management are private landowners. If we want to sustain the many benefits we get from big swaths of intact private lands, we must sustain the people who take care of those lands. Finding common ground among private, conservation, and public interests will let us support and encourage the best future land stewardship on private properties.
By Emilene Ostlind