Easing into protection

Conservation easement to protect sage-grouse and landowners

Fairfield Ranch straddles the west Walker River for about three river miles.

Fairfield Ranch straddles the west Walker River for about three river miles.

Courtesy photo

To learn more about conservation easements in Nevada, visit http://bit.ly/1fEd1HJ.

The dwindling numbers of sage-grouse (known to Nevadans as sage hen) is a common discussion topic in Nevada and much of the West. The bi-state population of sage-grouse in California and Nevada was listed as a threatened species earlier this year, and the decision on the listing of the greater sage-grouse will come in the fall of 2015.

There could be economic consequences if nothing is done to prepare for a listing of the species, so government groups, conservation groups, and others are working to not only save this species but also prepare the economy.

Working toward this, the Nature Conservancy (TNC), with state and federal agencies and the owners of Fairfield Ranch in Douglas County, have recently placed a conservation easement on that ranch land.

“Conservation easements preserve open space, and they protect property rights,” said Duane Petite, project director of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Program of TNC. “When you own private property, you own a bundle of rights such as access rights, use rights, water rights and grazing rights and development rights. And what a conservation easement does is it lets a property owner sell or donate one piece of their bundle of rights—their development rights—and preserve all their other property rights.”

Fairfield Ranch occupies a little more than 3,800 acres in the north end of Antelope Valley. The property straddles the West Walker River for about three river miles. Petite said conservation easements are important tools for protecting property and the environment.

“You’re not only protecting the open space—the fresh water, the incredible vistas—but you’re also, on a working ranch like Fairfield, you’re preserving traditional land uses and you’re conserving our ranching heritage,” Petite said.

This land contains habitat for the bi-state population of sage-grouse and protecting it with a conservation easement ensures that there will be no habitat fragmentation on this chunk of property.

“It will prevent any inappropriate development,” Petite said. “That area was slated for subdivision, hundreds and hundreds of houses, for example. In its place, you’ll continue the traditional uses of ranching and the property owners use it for fly fishing, they hunt on the location. They retain all the rights to use the property in those ways.”

Because the easement allows the land to remain in private hands, Petite believes this benefits the economy. It keeps the land productive as a ranch, providing things like jobs and property taxes, whereas other forms of environmental protection may take the land out of private ownership. This type of solution may help support the economy when or if the greater sage-grouse is listed under the Endangered Species Act next year.

Since the conservation easement was put in place on Fairfield Ranch, Petite has heard from several other ranchers in the area inquiring about conservation easements on their properties and he hopes this continues.

“We’re helping protect critical habitat, but we’re also demonstrating to other property owners one means of protecting their property while they keep it in traditional land uses,” Petite said. “And we’re hoping that what [the Fairfield Ranch property owners] have done will extend beyond their property and serve as a model to other property owners in the area.”