Open space enjoys a banner year
Landowners capitalize on tax credit opportunity

A herd of cattle waits for nightfall Monday evening along Highway 550, north of Hermosa. Increasing amounts of open space like this have been put under conservation easements this year, thanks to the Colorado Conservation Tax Credit, a unique program
that allows landowners to use the tax credit against outstanding tax or sell it for cash./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Cliff Schmid’s family has ranched on the Wells Champlin Ranch in southeast La Plata County for five generations. Last year, he and his wife Caryl voluntarily took steps to prevent their property from ever being subdivided or developed when they donated a conservation easement to the La Plata Open Space Conservancy. The easement ensured that 112 acres of pasture always remain as land dedicated to farming and ranching.

Interestingly, the Schmids’ operation has gained rather than lost value because of the move. The easement resulted in a tax benefit called the “Colorado Conservation Tax Credit.” The first of its kind in the nation, the credit can be used against existing taxes or sold to another taxpayer to generate cash. The Schmids sold their credit and used the proceeds to buy 80 adjoining acres and expand their operation. Last month, they put this property in another conservation easement and again are leveraging the tax credit to buy another adjoining parcel.

“We feel it is beneficial to everyone to protect this country’s open space, especially agricultural land, and the greatest protection tool so far has been the conservation easement,” Cliff Schmid said.

Icy irrigation water passes through Animas Valley grassland near County Road 250 on Monday evening. Local land conservation groups are reporting that 2003 was a strong year for preserving open space in La Plata County./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A record year

The Schmids are not alone in La Plata County. In spite of the recent swell of growth and development, there also has been a corresponding push to preserve threatened lands. With help from the State of Colorado tax credit, which was enhanced this year, local open space preservation has surged forward. Because of cases like the Schmids’, local open space advocates are looking back on 2003 as one of their strongest ever.

“We’ve already done 19 projects in a year’s time, and we’re not quite done yet,” Kathy Roser, executive director of the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, said. “I think we’re going to have a record year 85 . We haven’t protected as much area as some other years, but we’ve had more projects than most other years.”

At this time, the La Plata Open Space Conservancy’s inventory of protected lands includes 102 parcels and more than 14,300 acres of farm and ranch land, wildlife habitat, scenic open space, recreational land and archaeological sites in southwest Colorado. Over the past year, the conservancy has helped people ranging from ranchers like the Schmids to new homeowners on the Steward Ranch development up Lightner Creek, where it accepted 11 easements. In that case, the developer encouraged buyers to donate 4

conservation easements on their property and prohibit future subdivision. The preserved chunks range in size from 36 to 120 acres.

Worthy of protection

Tami Graham is the land trust coordinator for the Animas Conservancy, which was founded in 2000 with the intent of preserving 10,000 acres of the Animas River watershed. Graham said that in the last 12 months, she has seen a 50 percent jump in both the amount of interest and the resulting number of easements. Like Roser, she credited the enhanced tax credit.

“We’re definitely seeing a spike because of the tax credits,” she said. “It’s gotten to a place where we’ve got to be sure we’re not just providing a tax credit for somebody. We’ve got to make sure we’re protecting land that’s worthy of protection.”

In the year 2001, Colorado became a national leader when it created a conservation tax credit. In January of this year, the state one-upped itself by increasing the amount a landowner can claim from $100,000 to $260,000.

“That’s a big chunk of cash, particularly for people who are making $20,000 a year on the farm,” Roser said.

Despite the incentive, Graham explained that one of her group’s challenges still lies with landowner education. “A big stumbling block that we find is educating owners of agricultural operations about conservation easements and showing them that we’re not a quasi-governmental group looking to take over their property,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation about conservation easements, and there’s a perception that there’s a conflict between private property rights and what conservation easements do.”

Glimmer of hope

On the contrary, Graham said that conservation easements allow people like the Schmids to not only retain and improve their way of life, but continue to leave a lasting legacy for the entire county.

“A lot of landowners have an affinity for their property and have worked it for generations,” Graham said. “A conservation easement allows them to leave a legacy of protecting that property.”

And if that property is not protected, it will likely become something other than open space, according to Roser. “It’s pretty hard to make a living on any farm and on small farms in particular,” she said. “But there’s quite a bit of farmland out there, and if it’s not snapped up quickly, it will become houses.”

With a banner year for open space preservation behind them, Roser and Graham are also looking at full plates for 2004. “It’s huge right now,” Roser said. “We’ll be closing on three more projects before the end of the year and at least two more in January. We have a list of about 50 or 60 projects we’re working on right now.”

Graham said there is hope, but that La Plata County still faces an uphill climb.

“There’s a glimmer of hope,” she said. “These tax credits are a huge plus, and Colorado is one of the leaders in the nation. But we’re also facing more development pressure than virtually anywhere else in the nation. It’s daunting trying to keep of with the level of development that’s happening.”






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