Park County Open Lands, the newest regional program of the Jackson Hole Land Trust, has completed its first conservation easement in northwest Wyoming. The 364-acre Four C Ranch near the Shoshone River will be preserved and devoid of development for all time.
The easement is the first of what the group says hopes is many in Park County. The program aims to bring more ranchers to the table and find mutually beneficial agreements to preserve the wilderness and agricultural legacy of the region.
“The mission is to protect and restore the landscapes of northwest Wyoming for future generations,” said Alex Few, regional director for Park County Open Lands.
The First Easement
A conservation easement is a voluntary transaction between a private landowner and a land trust.
Instead of selling properties entirely, landowners can partner with organizations like Park County Public Lands and the Jackson Hole Land Trust. The property doesn’t become public, but is placed under a binding agreement to prevent any and all future development.
The Four C Ranch is located at the transition between the Middle and Upper forks of the Shoshone River west of Cody. The property is owned by Chuck and Marylin Walker, who wanted to protect their agricultural land from future development.
“In Park County, there’s been a lot of concern in the farming and ranching community that we may lose those industries as development increases,” Few said. “The Walkers took the lead in making an individual, voluntary decision to protect their acres for future agriculture use.”
Partnering with Park County Open Lands ensures the Four C Ranch will maintain and protect the property's wetland and riparian habitat, open space, grazing lands and water quality. The easement includes 1.5 miles of Marquette Creek, a prime habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and several pastures where mule and whitetail deer, pronghorn, sandhill cranes and other native species thrive.
The Walkers still retain ownership of the property. Park County Open Lands secure the rights to ensure that it will remain as it is, regardless of who acquires it in the future.
“Just like a landowner can sell their mineral rights, they can sell their development rights,” Few said. “We hold those developments. We worked with the Walkers to say any future development will occur in a small building envelope, and the remainder of the property will be forever protected from development and future subdivision.”
Park County Open Lands
While the Jackson Hole Land Trust has managed conservation easements for more than 40 years, Park County Open Lands only opened in February. Few said that the long-discussed program was finally realized during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people relocated to northwest Wyoming.
“This was a community-led vision,” she said. “For a decade, people in the community had been talking about a need for a locally led land trust. Those conversations coalesced into meaningful action in response to the COVID migrations.”
The 11-member advisory council of Park County Open Lands partnered with the Jackson Hole Land Trust to meet the growing interest and need for conservation easements. The Walkers were among the first landowners to reach out with an interest in an easement, and their property is now the first easement under Park County Open Land’s purview.
“This is a super-exciting milestone for us,” said Lindsay Halderman, spokesperson for the group. “We are so grateful to Chuck and Marilyn Walker for being our first inaugural project with Park County Open Lands.”
There are benefits to placing land under a conservation easement. Few said landowners who sell or donate easements could see notable tax benefits and use proceeds to reinvest in their operations, reduce debt, fund retirement and expand the land base for future generations.
“It’s a mechanism to keep working lands working,” she said.
Protecting Park County Permanently
Few, who has a background as a wildlife biologist, knows how important it is to preserve vast spaces for the benefit of local plants and animals. Preserving habitat on private land is a pillar of successful conservation, making Park County Open Lands' first easement a significant milestone for conservation in northwest Wyoming.
“Many of Wyoming's charismatic, iconic species require large landscapes,” she said. “Protecting private lands is an important part of maintaining the integrity of the wildlife habitat across this region.”
Park County Open Lands is just getting started. There are 11 additional projects in the works, all approved by the local advisory board, and more than 90 landowners have had meetings to discuss conservation easements of their properties.
But conservation is more than just homes and habitat. Park County Open Lands is ready to work with landowners who want to preserve the legacies of their lives and families by ensuring the culture of agriculture and ranching is preserved by protecting the land itself.
“Open space is truly a benefit to us all,” Halderman said. “Whether it's to continue agriculture, to see pronghorn migrating across your land, or to look out your window and remember the rural heritage of where we live. It’s so important, and we’re really proud to be working with landowners across northwest Wyoming to protect that.”