“In perpetuity” is a humbling piece of legal language that carries a weight difficult to comprehend. As illusive as the idea of forever, it is an urgent prayer sent into infinity that a piece of unique land will be preserved as it is today forever, or “in perpetuity.”
Specifically, these words are the heart of the legal document for a conservation easement. The landowner agrees to sell to the buyer (usually a nonprofit organization like The Nature Conservancy or land trust such as the Wood River Land Trust, occasionally a federal, state or local agency) all of the future development rights to the land specified in the conservation easement. The owner continues to own the land, and, if the property is a working landscape, provisions are made for the family to continue ranching or farming it following best conservation practices.
Naturally, an easement reduces the market value of the ranch because the property can never be developed should the family ever choose to sell out. On the other hand, for buyers interested in the preservation of open space and wildlife habitat, the conservation protections can be seen as an enhancement.
But even more concerning for families than this “forever” arrangement is the responsibility they assume for generations to come. What follows is the story of my family’s ranch, Flat Top Sheep Company, and how we came to put it into a conservation easement.
When our family began to think about what a conservation easement could mean to our large Idaho ranch, we were absorbed in an immediate crisis in which future generations played little or no part. We—my husband and I, our son, and his sons—teetered on disaster as we looked at every conceivable possibility to save Flat Top Sheep Co., our sheep and cattle ranch in south central Idaho. The land was my family’s identity, our home and livelihood and had been for four generations.
These ranch lands are a sprawling property north of Carey, in the Little Wood River drainage, a part of a huge ecosystem that provides natural habitat areas and migratory corridors for wildlife and an array of spectacular birds. At the same time, it is only a ridgeline away from the actively developing resort communities of the Big Wood River Valley.
Flat Top Sheep Co. was started in the late 1920s by my husband’s grandfather, John Thomas, a Gooding businessman and banker who was twice appointed to the U.S. Senate. Every year he ran sheep north from Twin Falls through the Little Wood River and Big Wood River Valleys, over Galena Summit and into the backcountry of the Stanley Basin on the annual migration and life cycle of these animals.
Thomas’s daughter, Mary, and her son, John, grew up immersed in the rhythms of ranch life and the land. Years later, in the early 1980s, I was brought into this life—an urban-raised, new wife.
I approached the landscape starry-eyed. The wild, rugged and lovely Western landscape was thrilling. I knew little about what that meant economically, emotionally or environmentally, or how the land would dominate my life far into the future. But I did realize almost immediately that ranching, farming and rural communities were in crisis, not only in Idaho but across the United States.
In the 1980s, there was a nationwide exodus from the land caused by farm credit policies that promised the moon but soon backfired as commodity prices began to spiral downward. Bankers and other lenders panicked, and foreclosures on delinquent loans became commonplace. Rural America began shutting down.
Only several decades earlier, agriculture was the livelihood of over 50 percent of Americans. Today, less than 2 percent of our population is involved in raising food from the land.
It was a devastating crisis, impacting not only the quality and sources of our food today, but it also spelled impending disaster for our open spaces across the country, which for generations had been largely preserved by ranching and farming families.
As the land values and commodity prices crashed in the 1980s and 1990s, many ranchers and farmers had little choice but to sell out to eager developers ready to redesign vast open space into population centers. This was an unacceptable option for our family.
It was then that we began to pay attention to the growing phenomena of conservation easements as a way to protect the open space, working landscape, natural habitat and wildlife that surrounded us.
We first learned of this opportunity from The Nature Conservancy, specifically its brilliant, quiet, behind-the-scenes strategist, assistant director Lou Lunte and former state director Laura Hubbard who worked tirelessly with us over many years to make our conservation dreams a reality. There was also important strategy input from the Wood River Land Trust and a new organization called the Pioneer Alliance that comprises environmental groups, representatives of federal, state and local agencies, and local landowners. The Alliance explored conservation measures to save the Pioneer Mountains-Craters of the Moon ecosystem and its working families who had preserved that landscape for generations. The timing was right. Conservation easements provided new hope for struggling ranchers and farmers whose only means of help prior to this had been to succumb to pressures from developers and leave their homes forever.
Through the work of the Pioneer Alliance, it became clear that our ranch made up a sizable part of the lands the group was trying to save. Our open space had been well cared for by our family since the 1920s, making it an appealing project for protection.
Little did we know when we began the process that it would take over five years to complete and would be a nearly full-time effort, one that became our life’s work. It was a time of daily stress as we worried over language in the legal documents, over every acre we hoped to save for family use, every field we needed for our sheep and cattle, every stream and spring we wanted to protect, every acre we farmed, every access road into the backcountry, every scarred hillside that needed to be closed to rogue ATVs in trespass. We considered the inholding campground surrounded by our private lands, beaver habitat along creeks, sagebrush hills for sage grouse, migratory wildlife corridors, all the land that could provide income beyond our ranching lives, our son’s dreams of a hunting lodge, and my dream of a few cabins for a writers’ retreat. It all needed to be itemized and protected in this legal document.
All the while the challenge of “what if” haunted us. How to speak for future generations? Will these things continue to be of value 100 years from now? Will food continue to come from the land for the generations ahead?
And what of the adversities that we fretted over as we reworked easement language and the huge changes ahead for our industry? Today, there is growing carelessness around us, from the beer cans thrown from pickups crossing our lands, to weekend hunters trying to find the quickest (often reckless) way to favorite hunting spots. What of wolves, GMO foods, sage grouse, hunting lodges, water flows? Will these issues exist and, if so, what will they look like in 30 years? How can we sign with confidence?
But then, how can we NOT sign and sign immediately when we see the land abused and in jeopardy? Through conservation easements, we have found partners who have not only taken the threat of development rights off the table but are committed to helping us handle many of these challenges and improve our conservation activities on the land—something we could not do alone.
The final easement was completed in 2013. Close to 23,000 acres became a series of conservation easements to be managed as a working landscape and for the preservation of the land and the habitat it provides to wildlife “in perpetuity.” In the end, this was made possible with the help of foundations, private funders, and state, federal and local government agencies who understood the importance of preserving such a huge swath of land.
This was our story. In moments of indecision and doubt we took courage from the actions of those who went before us, such as John and Elizabeth Stevenson, who were the first in the area to put a conservation easement on their farmland in the Silver Creek landscape. Their restoration efforts today filter farm water from the north as it passes through their land on the way into Silver Creek and, with the addition of a large pond that now covers land where cattle once grazed, they have created a wetland filled every year with returning birds and waterfowl. We learned from the Purdy family and John and Elaine French, among others, who have made large easement contributions across their lands to protect the pristine waters and world-famous trout fishing in Silver Creek.
Once we began exploring conservation easements, we watched this concept fan out to include several of our Carey and South Valley neighbors, among them the Bairds, the Bartons and the Molyneuxes. These agreements—some completed, some ongoing—have saved valuable wildlife habitat and migratory corridors and, in many cases, given families the economic breathing room to protect, improve and remain on the land they have cared for throughout the last century and that hold their personal histories.
In the end, for us, it is the personal story of our family, its past and now its future. It is also about the Laidlaws, sheep ranching pioneers who first homesteaded a large part of this land; and about John Thomas, who began Flat Top Sheep Co.; Mary Brooks, his daughter; John, Tom, Cory and Jake his grandson, and great, and great, great grandsons who continue the tradition. It is about the Burks—Sam, Dennis and Denny—the three generations of sheep managers who worked side by side with our family for over 80 years. It is about every Flat Top Sheep Co. herder, from Dirty Dutch over 60 years ago, to Efrahin and Wuilder today, and about every Scot, Basque and Peruvian who left his mark on a piece of aspen bark in this landscape. All of them will live on at Flat Top Sheep Co. now “in perpetuity.”