To obtain a published version of this guide book, E-Mail the Wyoming Governor's Office at pmcnew@missc.state.wy.us or call (307)777-7434

Table of Contents


This guidebook was made possible by the many dedicated volunteers who contributed to its design, writing, and review. The guidebook was proposed by members of Governor Geringer's Natural Resources Subcabinet in response to the Governor's natural resources partnership meeting. Each of them contributed text and information to this guidebook. Thanks to Gene Bryan, John Baughman, Jeff Fassett, Ron Micheli, Dennis Hemmer, Mike Besson, Jim Magagna, Margaret Spearman, Paul Kruse, Don Christianson, Walt Gasson, Mike Purcell, Larry Kruckenberg, Art Reese, Steve Facciani, Sue Lowry, and especially Grant Stumbough, who supervised the early work.

The University of Wyoming, through both faculty involvement and the Institute for Environment and Natural Resources, contributed hundreds of hours of volunteer time and selected two fine students from the School of Environment and Natural Resources, Matt Denning and James Shockett, to intern on this project and get it off the ground. The Wyoming Community Foundation provided financial support for one of the interns. Many thanks to Bill Gern and Kathy Cuomo for the Institute's involvement and the personal time they devoted, and for bringing the incredible talents of Ann Boelter to this project. This guidebook would still be incomplete (no matter what printing you are reading) without Ann Boelter's extraordinary commitment. No one contributed more. I also wish to acknowledge faculty members Harold Bergman, Gregg Cawley, Steve Gloss, Dennis Knight, Don McLeod and Bruce Richardson for their advice and contributions to the text.

Many Wyoming residents with experience and expertise contributed to the content and editing of this guidebook, including Carol Hamilton, Bob Budd, Dudley Gardner, Dennis Sun, Don Kendall, Nancy Geehan, Diane Harrop, Al Wiederspahn, John Jenkins, Terri Johnston, Liz Howell, Carol Kruse, Tony Malmberg, Stan Flitner, Priscilla Golden, Cindy Adamy and John Talbott. The Wyoming Stockgrower's Association Open Dialogue for Open Spaces Group, chaired by Carol Hamilton, served as the first editorial group. Many thanks to all its committee members, and to other editorial groups, including Wyoming Open Lands, the Wyoming Nature Conservancy, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, Steve Thomas of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, John Covert with Colorado Cattlemen's Association and the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service. Matt Jones in the Governor''s Office prepared many early drafts, Patti McNew provided great organizational support and Melinda Brazzale did a fabulous job on the design and layout. Special thanks to Mike Corso, the State of Wyoming Webmaster, for converting this document for use on the Internet. Governor Geringer's commitment to this project made it happen.

By listing these many contributors I know I have omitted several - you know who you are and, though you shall remain unrecognized, hopefully you will find the knowledge you share with Wyoming residents through this guidebook to be personally satisfying. My sincere thanks to all of you on a job well done. May Wyoming reap the benefits for generations to come.

--Cynthia M. Lummis, editor


Jim Geringer, Governor of Wyoming
Photo credit: Rick Carpenter

What is it about Wyoming that draws us so deeply - why do we love this State?

The answers often go something like this: "I like being able to drop my fishing line in a quiet little pond twenty minutes from my house"... "I love to hunt, and this is hunter's paradise"... "It's a great place to raise a family, clean air, good schools"... "I don't even lock my door at night!"... "I feel free here"...

The West used to be wide open, but things have changed for our neighboring states and they are changing for us. The Rocky Mountain West is currently the fastest growing region in the United States. Historically, migration to our western states, including Wyoming, centered on development of the abundant natural resources. These resources enabled Wyoming citizens to develop strong communities and a high quality of life.

Today, the primary human impact on Western land has shifted from resource development to urban development and subdivisions that can reduce and fragment agricultural land and open spaces. Fragmented lands may cause progressive irreversible deterioration to the wildlife, natural resources, economic diversity and culture that define the West. Without the scenic views, agricultural land and wildlife habitat that open spaces provide, quality of life in Wyoming will decline. Rapid growth has created housing booms in the Rocky Mountain states, diminishing our neighbors' most fertile agricultural land, wildlife habitat and open lands. Strip malls destroy grain fields; housing subdivisions replace meadows. It's like paving the pastures of paradise, and Wyoming could be next.

In December of 1995, I hosted a statewide conference on The Wyoming Partnership: Natural Resources for Today and Tomorrow. Conserving Wyoming's open lands and the quality of life they represent were identified as priority issues. In response, this guidebook has been prepared for individuals and communities who wish to understand the importance of preserving open lands and to voluntarily implement various conservation methods.

This guidebook is a working document for landowners and local government officials. Tools are continually under development in legislatures, in the courts, and at the kitchen table. There are no easy answers, and this is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of all possible solutions. Rather, the goal of this document is to increase awareness of the options available and to provide information about tools to help deal with these issues. You will also find a list of resources and organizations, both public and private, that can assist - often for free - with the implementation of the ideas contained in the guidebook.

Together, we can find solutions. It must be done rancher to rancher, neighbor to neighbor, and it has to make economic sense. As one Powder River landowner put it, "We've got some decent choices about our land future. But the trick is to get each of us to look at our options through the windshield, not the rear view mirror. And to work with one another. That's just good business."







Open space means different things to different people. It is our personal relationship with open space that makes it important. Open space may have economic and market value, but it also has social, cultural, and spiritual values. Open space can be defined as follows:

"Open space means different things to different people. It is our personal relationship with open space that makes it important."

Table of Contents


About 49% of the land in Wyoming is federally owned. Approximately 5% of the land is state-owned, and the remaining 46% is privately owned; vast stretches of prairie, forest and mountains are part of our open spaces.

"Private lands may be the single most vulnerable element of open space."

Publicly owned lands generally are managed for prescribed purposes and are not typically sold on the open market. Thus private lands are the main focus for concerns about loss of open space. Private lands contain critical habitats for wintering big game, nesting birds, fish, small mammals, and for domestic livestock. Most of the state's water is found on private lands, and nearly every stream or watercourse traverses private land. Private lands are vital to water quality, riparian and wetland functions, wildlife habitat and migration corridors. Private lands contain the dominant roadside viewsheds, particularly among the large river valleys that characterize Wyoming. As such, the condition of private lands "defines" Wyoming as much as anything and ties directly to the market forces that are making Wyoming popular.

Today, the value of open space attracts many in the business sector to less populated western states like Wyoming. Private land adjacent to public land is especially highly valued for home sites. But without ranches, wildlife, big skies, and seemingly endless expanse of land, the very values which have attracted development will be irretrievably lost.

Table of Contents


External forces

The trend toward increased rural living and out-migration from more populous states has produced a rate of growth in many western states which exceeds the national average.

Consider the bar graph comparing Wyoming's population growth to that of the United States as a whole and to our neighboring states.

From 1990-1995, the Mountain States exceeded the national rate of growth and grew much faster as a group than did the Plains States. Migration accounted for about two thirds of that increase in the three fastest growing states.

Economic well-being, including flexibility and choice of work locations in many professions, has allowed people to migrate to areas with a perceived higher quality of living. This willingness and ability to relocate has combined with other social and demographic changes to create a strong incentive for private landowners in Wyoming to subdivide their land and accommodate new people while improving their own economic well being. While population growth in Wyoming has been slower than in many surrounding states, rates are beginning to increase here as well. The population in Wyoming increased by 5.9% in 1990-1995 compared to a 3.4% population decline in 1980-1990.

Graph data from the U.S. Bureau of Census

Table of Contents

Internal forces

Several local factors have increased the potential for land sales, subdivision and rural development. These factors include declining revenues from oil and gas and other extractive industries, and cyclical agricultural markets. At the same time, land values are increasing due to the external factors discussed above. These conditions create a difficult situation for some landowners, who may be land rich and cash poor. Selling the land can become attractive when the real estate value exceeds the productive value and regulatory costs of the land.

Graph data from the U.S. Bureau of Census

Taken together, these external and internal forces create an atmosphere that is conducive to land subdivision and rural sprawl. Events which actually trigger the sale and development of open lands may be motivated by profit or economic survival, but are often stimulated by some type of individual or family hardship such as health problems, lack of a retirement income, divorce, or inter-generational tax burdens. Unfortunately, once these factors contribute to helter skelter land subdivision, there is often a domino effect as successive landowners cash in on their land assets. A nearby subdivision may compromise the appeal of maintaining a working ranch and cause other adjacent landowners to consider subdividing their lands when they otherwise may not have considered such actions.

Table of Contents


Private and Public Benefits of Open Space

Private land owners benefit from the agricultural income, from fees for recreational use such as hunting and fishing, from the privacy of living on a farm or ranch property, from viewing wildlife and undeveloped scenery, and from the real estate investment that may be the owner's retirement fund. The public benefits from and values the view of mountains, open agricultural land, cows and cowboys, sheep and sheepwagons, and wildlife; from free access to public lands, and from reduced congestion. The landowner, however, is seldom able to capture the economic benefit of these public values. This situation reduces the incentive for private landowners to provide open space for public benefit.

"Open spaces benefit both private landowners and the public."

Table of Contents

Costs of Development

Conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses reduces local agricultural output, employment, income and purchases. Housing developments may increase homeowner nuisance complaints against livestock, fertilizer use and other agricultural practices. Development also has indirect effects, such as the introduction of domestic dogs that may prey on or disturb livestock and wildlife. Exotic plants and noxious weeds may spread and replace commercial crops or native plants. Water quantity and quality may be adversely affected.

Public services and infrastructure are required to meet the needs of new arrivals. Local governments need information that allows them to project population changes, the number of public employees who must be hired, and the kind of public facilities needed to serve the changing populations.

For example, The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Local Government Center at Montana State University, along with county officials and local ranchers, studied the real economic impacts of different land uses in Gallatin County, Montana. Using simple fiscal analysis, the study showed that "for every dollar residential property pays into local government coffers, it demands $1.47 in direct services. Conversely, agricultural and open space only requires 25 cents in services for every dollar it contributes, commercial land 18 cents and industrial land 7 cents.

The study found that over half of the local government revenues come from property taxes. It might be expected that an increase in the number of residential properties would increase the tax base and therefore increase the revenues for expenditure on improved services and possibly lower taxes at the same time. Nevertheless, according to this study and others, as more farm and range land is subdivided, the tax rates rise and the infrastructure (such as roads, schools and law enforcement) is put under greater burdens. And, local governments may be stressed by the increased demand for direct government services such as public education, road maintenance, law enforcement, noxious weed control, and others.

"In times of rapid growth and consequent strain on local government budgets, elected officials and their staff need information on the public costs associated with private development and other land use changes."


Typical human activities in the West include oil and gas development, timber harvesting, mining, recreation and agriculture. For many of these activities, we have developed ways to either operate at a sustainable level or to follow up with reclamation, recovery and restoration procedures that, over time, result in minimal impact on landscapes. But housing developments are usually permanent. And even if they are abandoned, there are no legal requirements or financial incentives for removing the structures or roads associated with housing developments.

Important wildlife migration corridors, winter range and water provided by agricultural land are disrupted when development occurs. Opportunities to view or hunt wildlife are reduced, with adverse effects on local outfitters, outdoor equipment suppliers, and other businesses.

Development of private lands can reduce access to recreational sites on adjoining public lands, causing increased congestion and overuse at public entry points. Development can diminish the visual quality or aesthetic value associated with undeveloped land. This affects local residents and reduces the tourist appeal of Wyoming communities, which in turn reduces rural employment and income associated with tourism. In some areas, views of open spaces are valued so much that housing developments may have covenants that protect a homeowner's view.

"Fragmentation of landscapes due to housing developments and other forms of human habitation is permanent or almost permanent."

It is inevitable and desirable that growth and development occur in Wyoming. It is important to ensure that these changes represent both economic opportunity and the opportunity to maintain open spaces. This can occur through a combination of creative and thoughtful planning on the part of individual landowners, groups of landowners working together, landowners working with the public or with private organizations, or by public decision-making. The next two sections of this document describe tools available for these efforts, and needs for development of additional tools and information.

"These permanent alterations to open spaces result in the loss of the agricultural capacity and rural character of these lands, wildlife habitat, and scenic vistas."

Over the long term, Wyoming's open spaces and associated quality of life represent our single greatest renewable and sustainable financial resource. We need to work together to maintain this resource; almost every other state in this country wishes it had, and for many of them, it is too late. Please see Map

Table of Contents



"The first set of tools is for the use of private landowners primarily, with some opportunities for use by a combination of private parties and local government."

What follows is a short summary of some of the tools a landowner can use to either plan for development or to prevent development without financial sacrifice. For the landowner who is considering development or partial development of agricultural or other open land, an investment in planning frequently yields more profit than sending out a surveyor to stake unplatted 40 acre ranchettes. For the landowner who, except for some quick cash needs, would choose not to develop or sell land, good planning can eliminate or minimize the amount of land developed and its impact on adjacent undeveloped land.

Several Wyoming for-profit and not-for-profit organizations have developed expertise in using the tools described in this section. There are also professional land use advisors, tax advisors and legal advisors in Wyoming who can help landowners with planning. A large amount of printed and Internet reference material is available on these topics. Some of the sources and references used to compile the information contained in this guidebook are identified in the tools section which follows. You may access these sources directly or contact the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service for more information.

The information in this section is provided to give landowners more choices, not to tell landowners what and what not to do. Each landowner is in the best position to make decisions about his or her property.

Table of Contents

Conservation Easements

Conservation easements are voluntary restrictions placed by the landowner on the use of his or her property to protect resources such as wildlife habitat, agricultural lands, natural areas, historic structures, or open spaces. The landowner retains title to the property, and the easement is donated to a qualified conservation organization, such as a land trust, or a government agency.

The land trust or government agency holding the easement has the legal right and the responsibility to enforce the terms of the agreement. If the Grantor of an easement wants to take a federal income tax deduction, the easement must be perpetual and therefore has no end. Term easements, for a period of time, may also be placed on a property, but federal income tax deductions are only allowed with perpetual easements.

The advantages are that the landowner continues to own the property and may live on it, sell it, or pass it on to heirs. Estate taxes may be significantly lowered, which helps assure that the heirs can keep the property and not be forced to sell it to settle the estate. Income tax benefits may also result from a conservation easement. Flexibility is another advantage. Each agreement can be structured to meet the particular goals of each landowner, and need not include the entire property. Options may also be included for limited development of parts of the property. Finally, easements can offer permanent protection, with the land trust or government agency ensuring that restrictions are followed. Permanence may be considered a disadvantage of a conservation easement by some landowners, because it may limit the choices for using the land in the future.

Protecting your ranch's conservation values can offer significant financial benefits. Agricultural conservation easements, for instance, can yield substantial income tax deductions and can reduce property and estate taxes. Estate taxes alone can reach as high as 55 percent of a property's fair market value, enough to force heirs to sell all or part of the land just to pay taxes.

The flexibility of conservation easements has already been demonstrated in Wyoming. For example, a cooperative effort between a private Wyoming landowner, an energy company, a conservation group and a state agency sets aside crucial elk habitat in southwestern Wyoming while increasing total livestock animal units on public and private lands. This conservation easement protected the area from residential development and provided the landowner with working capital to purchase more favorable grazing areas.

Progress in preserving open lands has been demonstrated in Colorado and Montana with locally operated, landowner-driven efforts. One locally operated land trust organization in Wyoming, the Jackson Hole Land Trust, holds over 8,000 acres in trust, to date. The Nature Conservancy, a national organization which runs a local Wyoming program based out of Lander, also assists Wyoming landowners with the conservation easements process and accepts conservation easements in trust. Other Wyoming organizations are currently planning to add land trust services to provide landowners with a range of options. Photo


Table of Contents

Escrowed Commitments

What if each of several neighboring ranchers on a watershed wants to preserve the valley's ranching traditions by donating a conservation easement on his or her property, but none wants to be the only ranch to do so? If several neighbors begin to sell to developers, for example, remaining ranchers may want to sell, too, so they can buy another ranch elsewhere B where they are not the sole working ranch surrounded by 20 acre ranchettes. The Montana Land Reliance addressed this problem with an escrow arrangement that allowed ranchers to tentatively commit to conservation easements, but not to finalize the easement until neighboring ranchers committed as well. The arrangement worked by allowing ranchers to place conservation easements in escrow. If a predetermined percentage of nearby landowners agreed to similar easements, the entire package of easements would be transferred to the Montana Land Reliance. If not, the conservation easements would never take effect and ranchers would be free to do with their property as they pleased.

"This innovative approach insured each rancher that his conservation and tax-saving technique would be reciprocated by neighboring landowners"

In northeastern Wyoming, five landowners agreed to place portions of their properties in an easement escrow to preserve the natural integrity of the area while ensuring that all properties were not encumbered until all legal obligations had been met. Neighboring ranchers in the West Boulder Valley of Montana agreed on an arrangement allowing landowners to consent to conservation easements by placing each easement in escrow until a majority of their neighbors had committed. This innovative approach insured each rancher that his or her conservation and tax-saving technique would be reciprocated by neighboring landowners.

On the east slope of the Bighorns, The Nature Conservancy bought a ranch which was going to be sold for development and then agreed to sell it only to a conservation buyer. Four adjacent landowners voluntarily donated easements on their land to protect the entire area.


Table of Contents

Donating Land; Life Estates

For landowners who wish to preserve their land but do not have heirs who are interested in preserving it, donation may be an option. Land donations offer income tax deductions and capital gains tax avoidance while accomplishing permanent land protection. To be eligible for a tax deduction, donations must be made to a qualified nonprofit organization such as a land trust or to a public entity. Some nonprofits lease the donated land to another rancher. Frequently, the landowners can provide instructions to the land trust on how to manage the land. Some land trusts ask donors to set aside an endowment to pay for property management. Easements can also be donated to a land trust while the remaining property interests are retained by the landowners or conveyed to someone else.

"Land donations offer income tax deductions and capital gains tax avoidance while accomplishing permanent land protection."

If landowners want to preserve their land in perpetuity yet use it during their lifetime, they should consider using a remainder interest. The remainder interest enables the landowners to donate property to a qualified organization, receive an income tax deduction, and reserve a life estate for themselves so they can live out their lives on the land. Donations can also be made by will, which preserves for the landowners the right to change their minds. It does not entitle the landowners to an income tax deduction during their lifetimes, but does reduce the size of the taxable estate. A landowner should make sure the recipient organization will accept the gift before donating by will.

An owner of very valuable land who wants to donate his or her land to a trust and retain an income source from it may consider charitable remainder unitrusts. The landowner places a conservation easement on the land, sells the land and invests the proceeds into a trust fund that provides the landowners with income for life. Upon the landowner's death, the remaining trust funds are donated to a nonprofit organization or charity. This method provides income, tax benefits, and charitable contributions.



Table of Contents

Limited Development

An increasing number of landowners are using limited development to protect their land while meeting their financialz needs. Under limited development, the portion of the property least important to agricultural operations or conservation goals is developed in order to assure protection of the rest of the parcel. Unlike conventional subdivision, this process allows landowners to realize the return from their property and at the same time safeguard its natural assets or its value as a working ranch.

"Limited development can permit land protection in situations where donation or acquisition is not feasible."

Limited development can permit land protection in situations where donation or acquisition is not feasible. Under a typical limited development, a landowner subdivides a portion of his or her property into one or more lots. The issue of scale should be carefully considered when structuring a limited development. Lots should be chosen so they do not interfere with ranching operations or detract from a valley's scenery or natural resources. The landowner can sell them all at once, or one by one when income is needed.

To assure a high value for the lots, the landowner typically places a conservation easement on the balance of the property. An increasing number of buyers are willing to pay more for property with unspoiled views, solitude and recreational access. This arrangement also allows conservation-minded buyers to live on a ranch without the hassle of management responsibilities.

Landowners interested in limited development should understand the state's subdivision laws, which mandate state and county oversight of all subdivisions over a certain size.