ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

The Trail to Cooperation - The Buckeye Conservancy: Saving the land -- and family ranches


ABOUT 10 MINUTES INTO THE INTERVIEW, John Rice [photo below left] stops in the middle of a sentence and looks down the dirt road that runs through his impressive Eastern Humboldt cattle ranch.

There's a car coming up the way -- unusual in this part of the county, three quarters of an hour past Bridgeville on one-lane roads. "It's the new mailman," Rice says.

"He must be lost."

photo of John RiceIt's not hard to get lost here. Remote and sparsely populated, these wide stretches of pasture with clumps of timber have few landmarks or signs of development.

But some humans know the land intimately. Rice has worked and lived on this land for almost 40 years. He can point out ancient stands of oak, tell you where his cattle cross Indian Creek, kneel down and name the grasses that form an amber carpet across his pastures. Peering across the valley, he can even pick out the cabin he grew up in, before his current house was built. "My mother taught me sixth, seventh and eighth grade in that cabin," he says.

And he wants to keep the ranch in the Rice family. "I hope that somebody in the family will continue to go on with the ranch," he said. But while Rice has successfully managed his land, he admits it's getting tougher to keep a cattle ranch running.

That's why Rice, like many other ranchers and small-scale timberland owners, has become part of the Buckeye Conservancy. A group of landowners worried about keeping Humboldt's open space in family hands, the conservancy is bringing people from all sides of the environmental debate together to look for common ground.

Through advocacy, education and legal tools, the conservancy is trying to achieve the one goal that everyone can agree on: Keeping open space open.

"We haven't been really been represented by a particular body," Rice said. "I think the Buckeye Conservancy can help."

Ranchers are by their nature independent people. Families used to riding herd across thousands of acres of their own range are understandably proud of their self-sufficiency; it's a way of life. Global realities are making that voluntary isolation hard to maintain, however.

"We're beyond the point where the landowner will have total control over his destiny," said Andy Westfall, a rancher, timberland owner and chairman of the board of the conservancy. "Those days are just gone." [Westfall in photo below right]

photo of Andy WestfallThe end of those days has been heralded by two developments that the settlers who pioneered these ranches could never have foreseen: the global marketplace and environmental regulation.

The essential problem for a rancher today is one of free-market economics. The price of beef has gone down precipitously in the last 20 years, from $1 a pound in 1980 to just 72 cents now -- and that doesn't even take inflation into account.

"The big question then is: How have I been able to survive. The answer is that I, like a lot of other ranchers in Humboldt County, have a little timber. Utilizing that properly has helped the bottom line," Rice said.

But it has also brought ranchers into much closer contact with state regulators. The costs to have a logging operation licensed by the state can be prohibitive, Rice said, especially for small landowners.

And not being able to do modest timber harvesting can have environmentally counterproductive effects, Westfall said. Some landowners may harvest more than they initially want to -- just to cover the costs associated with the regulatory process.

If the cost of the studies necessary for timber harvest plan approval makes harvesting unfeasible, a small landowner may "consider whether or not it's worthwhile to hold that property." If sold, the land could become available for development.

In that sense, environmental regulations may have an unintended effect: pushing more land into development while punishing those who want to harvest modest amounts of timber.

"Right now the regulatory environment is punishing to those who are good stewards of their land," Westfall said.

That's where the conservancy comes in. In an attempt to provide a model of what they consider sensible regulation, the conservancy has started the Buckeye Forest Project. The project entails taking a small team of government officials, landowners and members of the public out to a piece of property and working out a way to make good forest stewardship pay for small landowners.

"We're going to put together a long-term management plan, address habitat issues, restoration projects and timber harvesting," Westfall said.

Timber harvesting isn't the only area where the relationship between regulation and ranching needs improvement, Rice said. Another example would be species protection law: People who work the land they own now live in fear of having an endangered species found on their property, he said.

Rice's land provides habitat for a wide range of wildlife -- a healthy herd of blacktail deer as well as high numbers of black bear, mountain lion, wild turkey, coyote and bobcat. "We have pretty much everything," he said.

In a perfect regulatory world, Rice should be rewarded for managing his land in such a way that it retains its habitat values. In reality, Rice has "real fear" that his land may be harboring an endangered species.

"If they found an endangered plant on my land tomorrow, they'd immediately want to rope off that area," he said. For ranchers operating on narrow profit margins, that's not acceptable.

If, on the other hand, the law were to look at how the species might be integrated into ranch activities, Rice said he would welcome the regulators. "If they were to say, `Is there something we can do here with you and not foul up your operation?'... I don't know of a rancher who would not be interested in that," he said.

photo of Rondall Snodgrass leading hike in the woodsThrough the conservancy, ranchers have found an unusual ally in their efforts to improve the effects of environmental regulation: environmentalists. Rondal Snodgrass, emeritus director of the nonprofit land trust Sanctuary Forest, said he hoped the conservancy would cause government to "take a new look at environmental regulation, taxation and their impact on these landowners. [Photo at left shows Snodgrass leading a group hike]

"You have to make it so that the landowners can do a good environmental job and still have an economically feasible operation," he said.

That's not just in the interest of ranchers and environmentalists, Snodgrass said. A much wider community is being affected by the decisions made in the hinterland, because it is the working landscapes of ranches and timberland that provides Humboldt's more densely populated coast with its quality of life.

Surveys conducted in Humboldt County have shown that clean air and water are among the most important factors in calculations of that quality of life.

"By maintaining the ranches, timber and relationship to the land in a way that produces clean air and water, landowners are providing exactly what people want," Snodgrass said.

"The public -- beyond the landowners -- needs to see the economic and social value of open space," he said.

Snodgrass knows the alternative all too well. Raised in an Oregon ranching family, he said he watched his family "give up those ranches and farms because of economic pressures."

"Our family didn't have a relationship with other ranchers and farmers so we could get together and say, `How are we going to keep the land?' So that land got dispersed. Now it's been developed," he said.

Even ranchers and timberland owners who are able to keep the land in their custody during their lives face a big problem when they are ready to pass the land on to their children.

The estate tax, triggered by the death of the landowner, is based on the assessed value of the land. If the land is developable, that value is likely to be very high -- possibly too much for the children to pay. It doesn't matter that the children have no intention of developing their land; the mere possibility is enough to drive the price, and the tax, up.

photo of the Giacominis"I'm third generation, and you'd like to see the land stay in the family, but you can't always get what you want," said Henry Giacomini, a Ferndale dairy farmer.

It is that desire that brought Giacomini and his wife Elsie to the Morris Graves Museum for a Buckeye Mixer Nov. 2. [In photo at right] The Giacominis are interested in seeing if the conservancy can help them find more information on conservation easements, legal tools which can yield cash to landowners while lowering the assessed value of the property, making it easier to pass on.

"Our land is worth more all the time, so yes, I'm interested," Giacomini said.

Conservation easements are the official and legally binding equivalent of a promise to keep your land undeveloped and healthy. An environmental group like the Pacific Forest Trust will usually pay handsomely for that promise. In one recent case, a rancher was paid $1.3 million for a conservation easement by the Santa Rosa-based group.

At the same time, by making it impossible to ever develop the land, easements ruin the market value. That means less estate tax and an easier time passing the land on.

Westfall said that he foresees putting an easement on his land in the future. "I'm open to the idea, because I don't see that kind of restriction as being contrary to our long-term goals," he said. "We don't want to see our property under subdivision pressures."

The Buckeye Conservancy, Westfall said, "will in the future be a facilitator for landowners who want to pursue easements."

But there's a problem with conservation easements, one best seen as not only legal but cultural. "I think if you ask most ranchers today, they'd be skeptical of any kind of easement because you're giving up rights to your property," Westfall said.

"An easement isn't something I need to do right now," Rice said. As long as he can find a way to keep his land together without an easement, Rice said he is likely to avoid them. At the very least, he would need "to know a lot more about it," he said.

Through his membership in the conservancy, he'll get a chance to learn. "One of the things the Buckeye Conservancy can do is help ranchers and small timber owners discover and analyze the different options out there for staying on the land," Westfall said. "There are some types of easements that will work for some families."

Easements aren't the only issue where education can defuse rachers' mistrust. One of the most important functions of the conservancy will be to just get people together, Rice said.

"The Buckeye Conservancy seems to me to have a good mix of people: There are large and small landowners, and people from the environmental community are talking to us," he said.

"If we can keep that and get dialogue between all of us, that will be a win-win situation. Of course you always come down to the hard questions, and those need to be talked out," he said.

Those "hard questions" include, most importantly, a discussion about whether his style of land use is appropriate at all. "Some people will think no activity on the land is best," he said.

"But we have to have activity to pay our bills and make some money. We want to stay in business." Getting others to understand how important that is to everyone in Humboldt County is "the kind of thing that can be figured out with the Buckeye Conservancy."

Common-sense stewardship

GOOD LAND MANAGEMENT practices aren't just important because of environmental concerns. Rice said that he has always managed his land conservatively because doing so safeguards his future prosperity.

"The cow is just a tool that we use to harvest the grass," he said. "We use the cattle to utilize that grass; we gain weight on the calf through grazing and then we sell the calf."

"Just following common sense, if we damage the pasture, we're damaging our bottom line," he said.

That philosophy of common-sense stewardship extends across Rice's current ranch and timber operations. When Rice harvests timber on his land, for instance, he seeds the ground disturbed by the logging with native grasses afterwards. That helps hold the land in place to prevent erosion and preserve the soil that is producing timber -- and income.

It also extends back in time to 1951, when his mother and father bought the ranch. At that time, environmental concerns weren't the subject of state regulation; they hadn't even been fully articulated as problems yet.

But John's father Lee still cared about good management practices. "We changed things when my father took over," Rice said.

The previous owner had been rough on the land when harvesting timber, he said. "There were landings right in the creek, and a lot of dirt and silt was pushed in." Without environmental law, that was all perfectly legal -- but Rice said he still didn't think it was right.

"My father was pretty business-minded, but he still didn't like some of the things that went on at that time," Rice said. The reason?

"You live out here long enough and you just get a close connection to the land."


Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2001, North Coast Journal, Inc.