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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU professor works to save ranches in the West

Rural ranches with majestic scenery and wildlife habitats are vanishing as the West grows at an exponential rate. With current economic forces proving uncontrollable for ranch owners, many feel pressured to subdivide and sell their land.

"But ranchers don't have to sell their land," said Jack Wright, head of geography at New Mexico State University and president of the New Mexico Land Conservancy. "They have many options to conserve their land."

In his latest book, "Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easement Design in the American West," Wright and Albuquerque architect Anthony Anella outline the process of saving land by donating a conservation easement that can mix limited development with land protection. He said this is the first book that focuses on helping landowners understand the legal process of donating easements.

A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a not-for-profit land conservation organization or agriculture organization that permanently protects the natural wildlife habitat and landscape of a property by limiting how the land is used in the future.

Today, six million acres of land are protected in the United States by conservation easements. Wright said the easements allow landowners to retain private ownership while limiting or prohibiting subdivision and protecting the future of the land. Landowners may donate an easement on all or a portion of their land. The entire process is designed to respect private property rights.

"Landowners with conservation easements maintain private ownership of their land. It does not become public property," Wright said. "The only thing that changes is the future of the land."

Landowners who donate an easement are eligible for financial benefits such as reduced estate and income taxes.

Wright said conservation easements are needed to save agriculturally important areas of the United States.

"If you want to save the essence of the West, you have to start with ranchers. They define who we are," Wright said.

Wright is a native of Maine and spent many years in Montana where he worked as a land-use planner and land-conservation consultant. He received his doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley in 1990 and currently serves as a professor and department head for the NMSU Geography Department. He is the author of three earlier books related to land conservation including "Rocky Mountain Divide: Selling and Saving the West," "Montana Ghost Dance: Essays on Land and Life" and "Montana Places." Wright has helped complete more than 100 conservation easements in the Western United States.

"Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easement Design in the American West" can be purchased at www.amazon.com.