What began two decades ago as a mere concept proposed by a group of innovative cattlemen has grown into the largest land trust in California.

The product of a successful collaboration between ranchers and environmental groups, the California Rangeland Trust is protecting from development 320,000 acres of privately owned rangeland in California — more than 2,000 of those acres in Kern County. Through the use of conservation easements, it is ensuring these lands will remain open rangeland in perpetuity.

“More than 62 percent of California’s open space is private rangeland,” explained Michael Delbar, the California Rangeland Trust’s chief operating officer. “All Californians — residents and visitors — reap the benefits of private rangelands with every breath of clean air, glass of fresh water, bite of local food and trip down the highway enjoying wide-open spaces.

“Rangelands comprise a significant portion of the open lands highly valued in California and must be protected for the health, economy and Western way of life.”

Kern County cattle rancher Sylvia Cattani, who sits on the trust’s board and serves as its secretary, noted that preservation of open space is critical to the protection of wildlife habitat and the survival of many species.

“As California becomes more crowded, habitats for deer, mountain lions, bears and even salamanders are being encroached upon,” she said. “A high percentage of our native wildlife lives and thrives on ranches in California. Preserving those ranches is the best way to protect wild animals.”

John Donnelly, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Board, agrees.

In 2016, when CRT, in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Board, placed 260 acres of the Bufford Ranch, east of Bakersfield, into a conservation easement, Donnelly noted, “The ability to preserve and protect working landscapes, including grazing and grasslands, wildlife habitat, cultural values and watersheds, is a real opportunity to sustain these habitat types in perpetuity for future generations.”

Nita Vail, CRT’s chief executive officer, added, “The Bufford Ranch is a striking example of how conservation partnerships between the Rangeland Trust, the Wildlife Conservation Board and Mr. Bufford can keep ranchers on the land and wildlife protected in the future.”

“We have been able to increase the acres conserved every year through hard work on the part of the staff,” said Cattani. “Funding is always the challenge for easements and our staff works very well with the Wildlife Conservation Board, the Department of Conservation, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and many other state and federal agencies to find funding for the many ranches on our list. It seems almost like putting together a puzzle the way our staff works with ranchers and these agencies to locate funding sources and then find ranches that fit the required criteria.”

At their 1997 convention, California Cattleman’s Association members voted to establish the nonprofit California Rangeland Trust to help keep California’s rangelands in agriculture. With estate taxes and other financial pressures often being reasons for families to sell their ranches, the CRT provides an alternative — specifically the sale of development rights, rather than the entire ranch. The sale of conservation easements to the CRT may be the best hope for a family to keep its ranch intact.

In exchange for a conservation easement, a rancher will be paid generally the difference in value between what the land would have if developed and the value it has remaining as open space or rangeland.

“If sold, the conservation easement would remain on the land and the landowner would only be paid for the ranching value,” Cattani explained. “With the skyrocketing value of land in California, it is often a large amount of money, which makes conservation easements very expensive. Government programs only have so much money for conservation easements and those funds have been cut substantially over the last 10 years. Private foundations and individual donations are welcomed by CRT.”

Awaiting funding by the trust are pending applications from landowners to protect an additional 228,000 acres of rangeland with conservation easements — 14,000 of these acres are in Kern County.

“Open space, clean water and clean air are important to all of us, whether we live in the city and drive through the mountains, or whether we live on a ranch or in a small town,” Cattani noted. “So many of the most beautiful parts of California are being chopped up and developed into housing tracts and/or ranchettes. The space between cities is disappearing along the coast and soon might become one huge sprawling city from San Diego to San Francisco, just as has happened in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles basin.”

“For anyone who is interested in preventing that sort of sprawling growth, placing voluntary conservation easements on California ranches is the best, most economical way to do that.”

The California Rangeland Trust accepts both large and small donations to purchase conservation easements. For more information, go to www.rangelandtrust.org or call 916-444-2096.

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