New Johnson County Land Wars

Two Cases Define Land Use Policy

Part I:  The Battle of Sand Creek Ranch

By Samuel Western

Buffalo–Few places evoke the Wild West of range wars and land feuds more than Johnson County, Wyoming.

The memory of the cattle war of 1892, the so-called “War on Powder River,” remains vivid today, although some in Johnson County wish it would fade.

Now, 118 years after that famous massacre, the county again finds itself in the middle of a fight. It’s a quieter battle this time, waged in courts and county offices, not on Nate Champion’s ranch, the center of the War on Powder River, which was a battle between homesteaders and open-range cattlemen.

As in the old conflict, the issue today is land use: who gets to do what with the land, and what is the public’s stake in the fight? A transition from large to small ranching was the root cause of the Johnson County War. The shift marked a decline in power for bigger cattlemen trying to stem the rise of the small rancher and settler.

Now Johnson County is making another transition: moving from an agricultural county to a mineral and residential county. The place has lovely landscapes and vistas, fertile ground for new housing developments for the energy workers, retirees, and second-home seekers who are moving in.

The rapid residential development pushes cultural hot buttons and raises a series of questions: What is “open space”? What value does it have? Is anyone willing to pay to keep land free of new roads and homes? What constitutes “agriculture?”

In the last few years, it has become clear that many people in Wyoming–of all ages and from all walks of life–care about open space. Attendance at Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s “Building the Wyoming We Want” conferences in 2008 and 2009 made that clear. People routinely complain about seeing new residential development eat up the open views of mountain and plain that they have long enjoyed. Some point out that subdivisions may be a lot more permanently destructive than oil, gas or coal development.

Notably, at the second “Building Wyoming” conference in June 2009, speakers increasingly emphasized supporting agriculture as a way to protect open space.

Agriculture and open space are not necessarily synonymous–but they can be. More and more people in Wyoming seem to think it could be good public policy to declare they are–at least when the agriculture at issue is ranching.

“Wyoming Open. Thank a rancher for preserving open space,” says a new ad campaign sponsored by the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, among others. It is an open question, however, whether the identification of ranch land with open space, and the concomitant alliance between ranching and conservation groups, will prove durable.

Two pending cases — one about county taxes, the other about conservation easements — could help answer that question.

The first case pits Johnson County assessor Dorothy Elsom against Sand Creek Ranch developer John Jenkins over how to tax hybrid developments that include both housing and agriculture.

Elsom, a respected longtime public servant with traditional ideas about interpreting real estate values, and Jenkins, a Princeton-educated entrepreneur, have a $16-million showdown before the Board of Equalization. They are battling over a new type of development that seeks to combine residential development with conservation of open space. The development occurs on a ranch, and the open space is the core ranch operation.

The second case involving Johnson County, Salzburg v. Dowd (previously, Hicks v. Dowd), has been before a variety of Wyoming courts for six years, although the parties involved are now in settlement negotiations.

The Salzburg v. Dowd  case raised the question of whether a conservation easement, granted in perpetuity to protect ranch land from future residential development, can be revoked by the holder of the easement — in this case, the Johnson County commissioners.  Some legal experts said that the Salzburg case could have huge consequences for the state and nation, potentially undermining the viability of conservation easements. (In June 2009, a lawyer who had been advising on the case discovered such serious technical errors in the Johnson County Commissioners’ conveyance of the easement that the case may be moot.)

One question connects the Jenkins quagmire and the Salzburg case:  How willing are Wyoming people outside of Jackson–people in places like Johnson County — to protect open space?  The answer in both instances appears thus far to be: Not very.

Judging by Johnson County’s experience, there are significant obstacles to a long-term partnership between open space and agriculture.

A fierce attachment to the traditional ranching economy of yesteryear joins a strong belief in the principle of local control. Further, limited options for county funding lead to  lack of the money and expertise needed to provide effective local control in today’s rapid market changes.  All these factors do not bode well for an alliance of open space and ranching.

Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...

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