Public Access, Private Working Lands, and Conservation Easements

Thank you to our partners at Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT) for this article.

Even in a state like Colorado, with significant public land, private working lands play a critical role in the larger recreation landscape. Private lands are habitats individuals can protect and restore, locations where big game winters, and they are strategic links to other conserved and protected lands. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT) was founded in 1995 by the membership of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association to deliver conservation solutions to Colorado’s farm and ranch families. In 28 years, CCALT has worked with approximately 420 families to conserve more than 774,000 acres of working lands around the state through the use of perpetual conservation easements. Many of these conserved farms and ranches also happen to have unique characteristics that make them appealing for outdoor recreation.

Conservation easements are voluntary, negotiated, legal agreements used to limit the uses of land in order to protect noted conservation values such as agriculture, open space, wildlife habitat, and scenic views. Conservation easements do not require public access, though they do not eliminate the potential for access in the future.

“We support each landowner’s vision for their properties when they partner with us,” said Erik Glenn, executive director of Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust. “In delivering effective conservation, we combine the appropriate tools, terms, and incentives necessary to help landowners achieve their goals for conservation and their operation. Those goals can — but don’t always — include public access opportunities for recreation and education.”

Deciding to include or not include public access in a conservation easement can have impacts on the value of the easement, the function of the easement for the agricultural operation, and it can and should be negotiated. Public access can be considered without having a conservation easement, during the negotiation of a conservation easement, or it can be considered well after a property has been protected with a conservation easement.

“It is important for landowners and potential buyers to understand the public access not only as it relates to their specific property of interest, but how the greater landscape is functioning. Landowners should consider what use looks like on a day to day basis, as well as season to season and year to year. Is this use something that will work 10, 50, or 100 years into the future?” CCALT Staff Attorney Molly Fales said. “Certain properties are well suited for public access based on the property’s uses and resources and the uses of surrounding lands, and there are other properties that do not compliment strategic, regional public access efforts. Before deciding to grant an access easement, it is critical to understand where your property falls.”

Fales suggested that if a landowner is unsure if public access is right for the property forever, it is worth considering that these access agreements can be time bound, and may allow for community, landowners, and the public to better understand the impacts on land, management, and habitat with shorter timelines upfront. Access on 10-25 year increments with options to renew, allows owners to have a say and provides an off ramp when it’s not working.

In Routt County, landowners utilized public fishing access to generate significant funding for a new conservation easement on their property along the Yampa River. A simultaneous fishing access easement was granted to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). This particular pairing of conservation and fishing easements allowed the landowners to secure more value from the easement process given their additional commitments to permitting public access.

Following a recent visit to access the ranch’s public fishing area, Fred Koch, a Colorado angler, shared that this type of access can be a unique experience for any angler who wants to fish a smaller section of the Yampa River. It was a chance to spend time in a place where the overall terrain and fishing experience wasn’t defined by a marked trail system.

In Southwestern Colorado, completing a public access easement granted to CPW at the same time as a new conservation easement granted to CCALT, landowners committed to public access for big game hunting for a limited number of hunters and years, during mutually agreed upon hunting seasons. This style of public access has allowed the landowners to continue to generate revenue through their existing outfitting business, while creating opportunities for the public to experience another special, protected place.

Another option altogether can be seen on a conservation easement completed in 2018, along the upper reaches of the Arkansas River in Chaffee County. This easement was accompanied by a 30-year option agreement to CPW. Within that timeframe, CPW could exercise it’s option agreement for public fishing access when the time was right and the public access aligned with surrounding properties creating a unified stretch of public fishing access along the Arkansas River.

“Combined, the fishing easement and the conservation easement, work together to protect open space, provide important angling access, and add to the protection of the Arkansas River, which is the longest continuous stretch of gold medal water in Colorado,” said Sean Shepherd, CPW Area Wildlife Manager for Area 13.

Shepherd also noted the importance of the partnership between landowners, the land trust, and the agency to ensure that not only is land protected, but that the recreational experience is also protected. “These partnerships also work to minimize future conflicts in these landscapes of growing recreational use,” he said. All to say, whether you own a property and are thinking about the potential for public access while assessing the costs and benefits of perpetual conservation easements, or looking to purchase or list your property, there is much to consider. Working with state and local conservation partners to negotiate public access can help ensure the conservation values on these lands remain protected and impacts to agricultural operations are limited.

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