Warren Ranch will be here for generations to come

— The classic Western barn and its white corrals are among the most recognized landmarks in Routt County. Sitting adjacent to County Road 129, the Warren Ranch barn is admired by thousands of motorists on their way to Steamboat Lake State Park and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area every year. In a way, the barn is emblematic of Routt County's ranching traditions.

Now, the entire 1,590-acre Warren Ranch, and the barn with it, have been placed under a conservation easement that will protect it from development in perpetuity. In the process, ownership of the ranch is being transferred to an investment group led by a Steamboat Springs man, Steve Cavanagh.

The land includes two parcels, one south of the county road, which is bisected by about two miles of the Elk River. The second is pasture land on the north side of the road, which transitions from oak and serviceberry shrubs to stands of aspen and dark timber as the elevation increases.

The Yampa Valley Land Trust, tapping into $500,000 from the Routt County Purchase of Development Rights program, another $500,000 from the federal Farmland Protection Program and $1 million from the Yampa River Legacy System Project of Great Outdoors Colorado, helped to purchase $5 million in development rights of the ranch. The balance of $3 million was "donated" by the investment group, executive director of the land trust Susan Otis said.

The Yampa Valley Land Trust will hold and monitor the conservation easements.

Otis explained that both the PDR board and the Yampa Valley Land Trust require a portion of those development rights be "donated" back to the conservation effort. Typically, they negotiate to leverage their grant monies by requiring the landowner to contribute between 45 percent and 65 percent of the development rights, Otis said.

In the case of the Warren Ranch, Otis said the development value of the property was set at $5 million by an independent appraiser, Bob Maddox of Valuation Consultants. Great Outdoors Colorado, the people of Routt County through PDR and the Farmland Protection Program supplied $2 million of that total. Otis said the original source of the money in the Farmland Protection Program is the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service.

The Purchase of Development Rights program uses public dollars raised through local property taxes. Voters countywide approved the measure in 1996. Otis predicted that when 2000 property tax collections are totaled in April 2001, the amount raised by PDR will have come close to $500,000.

The term "purchase of development rights" means the ranch owner literally transfers the right to develop the property in the future in exchange for an appraised value. The easement is a form of deed restriction placed on the ranch, Otis said.

Ruth Warren, longtime owner of the ranch and widow of Forrest Warren, said her late husband would have approved of the deal.

"I'm sure he'd be happy," she said. "It will never be a golf course out here. It would make a nice golf course, but it's not ever going to."

The investment group has purchased all of the shares of stock in the Warren Ranch from family members. Cavanagh is president of Warren Ranch Inc. He was unwilling to reveal the names of the other investors, or how many other investors there are.

Colorado State University Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow is an ex-officio member of the PDR board. He said the investment group is not getting a special deal on the ranch underwritten by public monies.

"We didn't cut Cavanagh or anyone else a deal," Mucklow said. "He got what he paid for; there's no development rights there for Cavanagh."

Mucklow added that if Cavanagh's group had not appeared relatively late in the process, the ranch might not have been conserved.

"The project might have failed," Mucklow said. "It was that close."

Purchase of Development Rights Board Chairman Carl Vail praised the protection of the Warren Ranch.

"The road is just above the ranch and you can look over this beautiful meadow and the riparian area" along almost two miles of the Elk River, Vail said. "It's the epitome of what we're trying to preserve. I felt very, very strongly about the Warren Ranch from the first time we had an opportunity to review it."

Otis said the Yampa Valley Land Trust has been working to facilitate conservation easements on the Warren Ranch for three years.

The ranch was operated for many years by Ruth Warren and her late husband, Forrest. Their adult children are Joan Lewis and Bill Warren. The conservation easements on the ranch include both the hay meadows south of Elk River Road, which straddle the Elk River, and a parcel of pasture north of the road.

As part of the deal, Ruth Warren will be able to live on the ranch for the rest of her years, Otis said. And local ranch couple Lynne and Delbert Sherrod will also continue to operate their own cattle business on the ranch through a lease.

The Sherrods have lived on the ranch for more than two decades, first as managers and then as independent agri-business people. Lynne Sherrod, as executive director of the Colorado Cattlemens Agricultural Land Trust, is intimately familiar with the effort to keep working farms and ranches in production. But the organization she heads had nothing to do with the conservation of the Warren Ranch, Otis said.

"We're really excited about the opportunities we have on the ranch now," Sherrod said. "There were times in the last two and a half years we didn't think it would happen."

Sherrod said the ranch was destined to sell, and in her work with the cattlemen's trust, she has seen that the point in history when ag lands undergo intergenerational transfers is critical. She said that had the deal with Cavanagh's investment group not gone forward, and the ranch been taken out of production, it could have led to the fall of other smaller ranches in the Elk River Valley.

"I really think that was the fear," Sherrod said. "We were holding our breath. This is such an integral part of the valley, because if this ranch goes, it doesn't make sense for some of the other smaller places to stay in business."

As agricultural land, the rich soils on the lower parcel where the irrigated hay meadows lie on both sides of the river might be deemed the most valuable. But Sherrod said the 800-plus acres of summer pasture on the upper parcel are critical to their cattle operation as well as to wildlife.

"It's incredible elk habitat up there," Sherrod said. The ranch has not had any National Forest grazing permits attached to it for a number of years because Forrest Warren didn't enjoy dealing with the permits, Sherrod said.

She said her husband says the ranch can support 250 cow/calf pairs or 300 yearlings. They intend to continue their practice of leasing other ag land in the valley and run a mixed cow/calf operation with some of the calves held over to be sold as yearlings.

Otis emphasized that the conservation easement will not allow any development on the ranch beyond construction of a home and several small fishing cabins.

"There is no development component," Otis said. "None of these parcels can be severed and sold. The upper and lower parcels cannot be separated. Together they'll stay in agricultural production."

Mucklow said he thinks the Warren Ranch is a great match for the four primary criteria set forth for the use of PDR funds. Mucklow participated in drafting the criteria.

First, the purchase of development rights from the Warren Ranch leverages local dollars very effectively, Mucklow said. He explained that if the $500,000 in local PDR funds is compared to the $5 million appraised value of the development rights, it represents a 10 to 1 leverage.

Second, Mucklow said the Warren Ranch qualified for federal funds because the hay meadows represent desirable irrigated ag land.

"That particular ranch is a high-quality ranch," Mucklow aid. "We rated the soil types and their production. Their hay yield is above the county average."

Third, Mucklow said, conservation of the Warren Ranch improves the chances of continued agricultural uses throughout the valley.

Finally, the purchase of development rights from the ranch achieves the fourth criterium of benefiting "multiple community values."

Local residents and tourists alike, who drive by on County Road 129, can appreciate the views of the ranch, Mucklow said.

"It's really a capstone piece of property," he said. "I drive by it every day. What's the value of that? What's it worth? It's worth a lot to me."

Lynne Sherrod said Forrest Warren would appreciate the fact that views of the ranch will still be there for tourists on their way to the state park and National Forest.

"Forrest was always proud of the place," Sherrod said. "That tickled him when people stopped to take pictures. He liked sharing what he had."

Ruth Warren said it's hard to explain the emotional attachment that farmers and ranchers have with their land.

"We built a lot of fences," she said. "We built ponds. It's just when you put a lot of work into a place, it just breaks your heart to ever have to leave it."

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210

or e-mail tomross@amigo.net

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