Land trusts in the WP region: An impressive but uneven record

A ranch easement on Blackfoot River corridor. Photo provided by John B. Wright.

A ranch easement on Blackfoot River corridor. Photo provided by John B. Wright.

by Dr. John B. Wright, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Land trusts are non-governmental organizations with a mission to protect key private land from subdivision and development. Nationwide 1,100 trusts safeguard 12.5 million acres, with national groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund protecting even more land at 36 million acres. Trusts operate as a kind of non-governmental planning agency with a more focused agenda than public sector programs. They rely on incentive-based tools such as conservation easements and fee simple purchases instead of police power authority.

Given the statutory and political limits of zoning and subdivision regulations, planners sometimes turn to trusts as silent or active partners in implementing the open space elements of comprehensive plans. Yet, these collaborative efforts remain disbursed and less common than ideal. There are many reasons: ideological conflicts between regulatory and voluntary approaches, lack of land trust experience with planners, political barriers, funding shortfalls, and differences in growth pressures. While planners are often familiar with specific land trust projects in their area, many are less aware of the overall record within the Western Planner (WP) region and disparities from state to state. Land trust success stories, which can serve as models, may not be as well-known to planners as they should be.

Land Trust Record in the WP Region

Montana Land Reliance easement on ranch on Madison Valley, Montana. Photo provided by John B. Wright.

The record of land trusts in the 13 state region is impressive, but spatially uneven (See Table 1). There are 123 local and statewide trusts present – 11 percent of the national total – yet nearly 60 percent of the region’s trusts are found in three states: Washington, Colorado, and Oregon. Collectively, the 123 groups have conserved 31 percent of the U.S. total land trust acreage. Trusts are most successful in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and New Mexico, which account for 28 percent of all acres protected by local and statewide trusts in the country. Despite diverse cultures and political climates, each place has a robust conservation culture. More than a million acres have been protected in both Colorado and Montana. Only Maine has done better (1.8 million acres, much of it former corporate timberlands purchased by The Nature Conservancy).

The remaining nine states in the WP region have combined to protect only 3 percent of the national tally. The scant record in the Dakotas is easily explained by a lack of development pressure and the recent bust of the fracking boom. But other places are puzzling. More land has been conserved by the five trusts in strongly Mormon Utah than in the 15 trusts in secular “green” Oregon. Despite the fastest population growth rates in the country, Nevada and Arizona lag behind in land trust work. In Nevada this may be due to the high percentage of public land. In Arizona, state land projects are not reflected in the record of trusts.

“Acres conserved” is a crude measure of conservation success. The ecological, scenic, agricultural, and open space merits of properties are vital, but when considering the fate of landscapes, size matters. However, the metric of acres conserved per 100,000 people (shown as “per capita” in Table 1) levels the playing field and gives us a relative sense of engagement. Maine leads in this measure – 135,734 acres per 100,000 people. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington, and New Mexico stand out in the WP region and rank high nationally. Surprisingly, when per capita figures are used, liberal Oregon does little better than conservative Arizona. Wyoming, home to a profoundly Republican population emerges as an environmental leader, at least in this regard. This reminds us that land trusts use tax deductions for conservation easements as incentives for landowners to protect their land. While regulatory planning may face stiff opposition from conservatives, they often support the work of trusts, especially people facing large income and estate tax burdens.

As evidence of this, the stock growers associations in Wyoming, Colorado, and Oregon have all formed land trusts to conserve working lands. The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust has an active “Ranchland Succession Program.” The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust holds 240 conservation easements protecting 450,000 acres. In Montana, the Montana Stockgrowers Association actively collaborates with the Montana Land Reliance, the most successful statewide trust in the country. However, rancher organizations in the remaining states of the region have not yet followed suit.

The percent of private land in a state also varies tremendously, ranging from a high of 91 percent in the Dakotas to 4 percent in Alaska. But how much of that private land has been conserved? Nationally, Vermont is the leader at 11 percent, followed by Maine (8 percent, New Hampshire (7 percent), and Massachusetts (6 percent). In our region, Colorado trusts protect 3.2 percent of the private land from development in that vast state with Montana, Wyoming, and Washington also tallying impressive records. The preceding statistics outline the record of local and statewide trusts, but they do not really breathe life into the story.

Looking Deeper

Cultural geography and land ethics drive conservation and these matters of the heart defy quantification. However, land trust successes are one tangible measure of people’s love of place. In this regard, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and New Mexico have the strongest “land-saving” cultures. However, people across the WP region care deeply about their landscapes and we may just be seeing “cultural lag” in the acceptance of land trust work. Also missing is the record of national non-governmental organizations.

Colorado’s 28 land trusts are spread across the Rocky Mountains from the San Luis Valley to Steamboat Springs and up the Front Range from Pueblo to Fort Collins. Trusts succeed in liberal counties such as Boulder and Larimer and conservative counties like El Paso (Colorado Springs) and Douglas. However, four trusts account for 68 percent of the state’s conserved private land: Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Land Trust (CCALT) (450,000 acres), Colorado Open Lands (251,375 acres), the Palmer Land Trusts in Colorado Springs (72,193 acres), and the Yampa Valley Land Conservancy (59,390 acres). The Yampa River is the site of a major collaborative conservation effort involving the Yampa trust, CCALT, Colorado Open Lands, Western Rivers Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy. Impressive open space systems have been assembled cooperatively by trusts and city/county planning programs across the state.

Recreation access on easement land on the Blackfoot River corridor in  Montana. Photo provided by John B. Wright.

Montana is one of the most mythical places in the West. Driven by homegrown land ethics, a robust literary tradition (such as The Big Sky), legendary trout fishing, and the tax shelter needs of amenity migrants, trusts have protected nearly 1.2 million acres of “The Last Best Place.” Yet, the Montana Land Reliance – a statewide trust – has conserved 82 percent of the total (961,000 acres). Montana Land Reliance’s success is based on doing one thing very well: receiving donated conservation easements on ranches, often along the state’s many rivers. The Blackfoot River conservation program serves as a national model. Montana Land Reliance, The Nature Conservancy, the Five Valley’s Land Trust (Missoula), and the Blackfoot Challenge have done immense work in safeguarding much of this hallowed watershed. Vital Ground and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are also based in Montana. Vital Ground operates from Alaska to Wyoming protecting grizzly bear habitat as a keystone for landscape-level conservation. The Elk Foundation works across the U.S. to conserve and improve wildlife habitat.

Wyoming trusts have accomplished much, but the results are asymmetrical. Vital Ground has conserved 324,500 acres of wildlife habitat (62 percent of the state total). Otherwise only two trusts have strong records. The Green River Valley Land Trust holds conservation easements on 32,000 acres of ranchland, riparian habitat, and wetlands in that drainage. The Jackson Hole Land Trust (22,535 acres) works in Wyoming’s liberal outlier where land values are among the highest in the country. Here, tax deductions for donated easements bring wealthy newcomers significant benefits and help shield long-term ranching families from estate taxes. Elsewhere in the Cowboy State, trusts are scarce.

Washington has 29 trusts spread across the Cascades and coastal regions. Forterra is a statewide group that also works on community building and land restoration. They safeguard 234,000 acres of forests, farms, shorelines, and urban green spaces – 76 percent of Washington’s total. Several other trusts are also doing excellent work. The San Juan Preservation Trust protects 14, 377 acres in the San Juan archipelago. The Whitcomb Land Trust, Methow Conservancy, Inland Northwest Land Trust (Spokane), and the Skagit Land Trusts all have conserved more than 7,000 acres each. Yet, Washington, like the other top states in the WP region has an uneven pattern of land trust success.

A purchased easement on historic farm in Corrales, New Mexico. Photo provided by John B. Wright.

New Mexico is the most cryptic cultural landscape in the WP region. This Indian/Hispanic/Anglo state has a turbulent land tenure history that makes land trust work challenging. Despite that, four distinctly different trusts are doing well. The New Mexico Land Conservancy holds easements on 146,000 acres of working lands, scenic open spaces, and wildlife habitats across the state. They have conservation strategies in place for the Greater Gila Ecosystem and the “Hi-Lo Country” – a vast expanse of ranchlands where the Great Plains meet the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Malpai Borderlands Group is a rancher land trust that protects 78,000 acres of bio-diverse working lands in New Mexico’s “Bootheel” region and adjacent parts of Arizona. Malpai buys conservation easements using funds from donors such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Together, New Mexico Land Conservancy and the Malpai Borderlands Group conserve 76 percent of the state total. The Santa Fe Conservation Trust (32,793 acres) operates in that mystical enclave while the Taos Land Trust (24,264 acres) works with Hispano families with a long-term fidelity to the landscape.

Table 1 reveals a drop-off in land trust work in the region’s remaining eight states. However, there are really three classes of success: 1) the top five states described above, 2) middle-ground states such as Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, and Alaska, and, 3) the Dakotas, where trusts are not yet part of the planning landscape. The reasons for this are many - differences in land development pressure, disparities in the amount of private land, political ideology, economic factors, and cultural geography. Detailed analysis is needed, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

Cooperation between Planners and Trusts

An easement on Mount Sentinel in background in Missoula, Montana. Photo provided by John B. Wright.

I was the Planning Director in two western Montana counties back in the seventies. My frustration with the legal and ethical limits of regulatory planning caused me to move into the land trust arena as a conservation easement consultant with my friend Bruce Bugbee in Missoula. I did this for a simple reason – I wanted to conserve land, not review subdivisions. As a result, I have designed over 120 conservation easements, prepared county conservation strategies, written articles and books on implementation techniques, taught environmental planning classes, and chaired the New Mexico Land Conservancy for a decade. I’ve seen a staggering increase in the success of trusts in the West, yet more remains to be done. Here are a few suggestions for planners.

  • Collaborate with a trust on crafting a county land conservation strategy
  • Cooperate with land trusts to implement comprehensive plans, especially the protection of agricultural land, scenic open space, wildlife habitats, watersheds, and hazard areas such as fire-prone urban-wildland interface ecosystems
  • Create a city/county open space program with the technical assistance of an experienced land trust
  • Write a cluster development ordinance with a density bonus linked to the placement of a conservation easement on a percentage of the land in the subdivision – a partnering land trust would then accept the easement
  • Replat “zombie” subdivisions to reduce density and infrastructure costs; work with a land trust to place a conservation easement on the freed-up land
  • Integrate conservation options into pre-platting design conferences with landowners and developers; have trusts help in designing alternatives to traditional subdivisions
  • Read up on conservation easements and open space measures
  • Check out the Land Trust Alliance website ( – Click on the “Find a Land Trust,” search by state, and see what trusts are doing in your area


Land trust groups are natural allies to planners dealing with development and landscape change. I continue to do conservation easement projects with the New Mexico Land Conservancy as a Land Advisor ( I often work with city and county planners on collaborative efforts at conserving open space. From that experience, I strongly believe that if we are to create livable, safe, and prosperous communities, cooperation between planners and land trusts is essential. The preceding article provides a sketch of the status of land trusts in the WP region and the following references offer more information on how land trusts work.

An easement on ranch at edge of Yellowstone Park in Paradise Valley, Montana. Photo provided by John B. Wright.

Dr. John B. Wright has been a planner and land conservation consultant for over 40 years in the American West. He is the author of numerous articles and books on conservation easements and conservation planning. Dr. Wright is Regents Professor of Geography at New Mexico State University.


  1. Anthony Anella and John B. Wright. 2004. Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easement Design in the American West. Island Press. San Francisco and London.
  2. Richard Brewer. 2003. Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America. University Press of New England. Hanover, NH and London.
  3. Elizabeth Byers and Karin Marchetti Ponte. 2005. The Conservation Easement Handbook. Land Trust Alliance and the Trust for Public Land. Washington, DC.
  4. John B. Wright. 1993. Rocky Mountain Divide: Selling and Saving the West. University of Texas Press. Austin
  5. Website gives data on open space bonds and other funding measure by state and local jurisdiction since 1988
  6. Excellent background source. “Find a Land Trust” prompt gives access to a huge database on the work of land trusts in the United States. Data used in this article comes from the latest LTA national survey taken in 2014 - accessed March 2015.

Published in the December 2015/January 2016 Journal

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