Easements Offer Landowners Options

San Benito County Debates Value of Federal Program Aimed at Local Rangelands

Chad Zgragen's family has been ranching in southern San Benito County since the late 1800s. Like many ranching families, they have endured the ups and downs of the cattle business.

"The biggest challenges of ranching are surviving drought, water and feed shortage, being able to keep and feed enough cows to make a living,” Zgragen said. “There are other factors that can compound to make things more difficult, such as high feed costs, high fuel costs, etc. The next biggest challenge is keeping property intact over generations."

Farmers and ranchers know all too well the challenges of agriculture. Mother Nature is a fickle business partner and may impose drought on any given year. The lack of rain means less grass and, therefore, less gain on animals sold by the pound. Increased regulations, labor costs, infrastructure maintenance, and property taxes all add to the expenses. Depending on the individual rancher’s business strategy, it takes between eight and 24 months of inputs before an animal is sold. Many families find younger generations choosing jobs off the ranch, offering a more reliable source of income. “Land rich and cash poor" is the term applied to families who own land, but lack income. For families whose children have left the business, sometimes selling is the only equitable way to divide assets.   Organizations like the California Rangeland Trust and The Nature Conservancy offer ranching families a way to keep land in the family through conservation easements.

“Basically, conservation easements are voluntary restrictions on the use of privately owned land. They are generally designed to be appropriate to the specific circumstances and concerns of both the landowner and the easement holder. Easements can be utilized for various purposes such as to protect a family's viable ranching operation, preserve views or to provide mitigation for a project (environmental or other),” the California Rangeland Trust website says.    

Hollister rancher Billy Dorrance's family has first-hand experience with easements. The Dorrances could have sold and subdivided their Mt. Toro ranch in Salinas for development. In March 2008, with his brothers Steve and Dave, Billy closed a deal with The Nature Conservancy and Big Sur Land Trust. The agreement placed their ranch in permanent conservation easement, protecting working ranch land while securing adequate funding for its long-term management and transition to future generations.

"One of our goals was to keep the ranch available for future generations, if they are interested," Dorrance said. "Every family has different goals and any easement agreement needs to take those into consideration. In our case, it fit our goals. We made it clear that we wanted the ranches to be maintained as working cattle ranches." Dorrance stressed that easements are voluntary and usually the result of collaboration between family members and the agency. "They really encourage the owners to be there. In our case, it's been positive to this point."

The Dorrances’ experience is an example of how conservation and ranching interests can work together and help both human and natural communities thrive. Their easement preserved the region’s air and water quality, wildlife, native plants, and lifestyle benefits while the Dorrances were able to continue managing livestock as they have for generations.

For many San Benito County landowners, agriculture is more than a business. Ranching provides not only a livelihood, but a way of life rich in cultural traditions and heritage. Parents teach their children how to ride and rope shortly after they learn to walk. Annual brandings are a communal celebration that includes a workday to gather, work and doctor calves, followed by a tri-tip BBQ and Pedro games. Teaching younger generations how to care for livestock and the land is a major part of what many South County families want to preserve.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is proposing a statewide conservation easement program aimed at maintaining working ranches that provide wildlife habitat and open space.   They have yet to decide on the final map of the program, but currently favor an alternative that would exclude San Benito County ranchers from participating. The project, called the California Foothills Legacy Area, has drawn both support and criticism from local ranchers. Critics call it a federal government land and resource grab and accuse the USFWS of sidestepping environmental review processes required by businesses and private developers. Others see the program as an opportunity for ranching families. At an Open House held Aug. 9 in Hollister, members of the USFWS met with local ranchers to answer questions and gather comments.

“There seemed to be a real mistrust of the government, that’s the overwhelming sense I got at that meeting,” said San Benito County Supervisor Jerry Muenzer. “The USFWS staff did not do a good job of informing local officials about this program beforehand. I wish they had sat down with us so we understood it better.”

Muenzer, whose district includes South County and many of the ranches that would be included in the program, said he has heard from constituents who oppose the program and from others who support it. He declined to name a specific number of opponents or supporters.

“I think people are concerned that the government says the program is optional now, but what’s it going to be down the road? Maybe someday they’re going to impose more restrictions on landowners in that area,” Muenzer said.

The USFWS website summarizes the project as follows: 

"In an effort to conserve working rangelands and the wildlife they support, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to launch a new, conservation easement program called the California Foothills Legacy Area (CFLA). This easement program would provide a new tool to help ranching families stay on their land while permanently protecting a portion of this important resource for wildlife. The easements would encourage continued ranching operations because of the wildlife benefits they provide, while limiting the type and amount of development that may take place on a property in the future. The proposed program would be completely voluntary. No new regulatory requirements would be placed on lands within or outside the program area. Ranches within three foothill areas bordering the San Joaquin Valley could be eligible for the program, depending on which alternative is selected.”

Kim Forrest, a project manager with the USFWS, spoke to residents at the August 9 meeting and outlined the project’s scope.

“Beyond voluntary, this is a partnership between FWS and landowners. FWS wants landowners to keep doing what they’ve been doing that provides excellent habitat for wildlife – the land owners are paid to keep doing what they’re doing,” Forrest said. "I've seen many beautiful places turned into subdivisions and intensive agriculture. Many of the habitats of California have been beleaguered by development, and the dependent wildlife has suffered and declined along with it.  When experts took an in-depth look at the foothill habitats, it was rather surprising how important it is to migratory birds and resident wildlife. These easements are a 'win/win/win':   conservation agencies see the protection of important habitat and its dependent wildlife; the American people get a good deal in that our Congressionally mandated conservation mission is served without the government taking on the long-term operations & maintenance costs; and the landowners keeps their land, get it protected in perpetuity, with funding that can go a long way toward stabilizing the economics of ranching (e.g., cushioning the lows of repeated droughts, etc.), helping divide estates, make capital improvements, etc."

Currently, the preferred “Alternative B” of the CFLA includes 200,000 acres of working rangelands in Merced, Mariposa, Stanislaus and Tulare counties. San Benito County is excluded in that plan. “Alternative C” includes another 125,000 acres, 70,000 of which are in San Benito County. That plan would give landowners here the option of taking advantage of conservation easements in the program. Not all residents, however, believe that would be in the best interest of San Benito County.

“I do not believe that placing land with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a good idea,” said Sandy Rose, a Hollister rancher and property owner in South County.

“Why would we want to be included?  I cannot see any benefits.  There are land trusts available that would benefit land owners if they want to perpetuate their property and have conservation assistance.  I do not know of any government program that is managed successfully and doubt Fish and Wildlife is any exception. I fear that signing with this program would further limit property owner rights.”

The county Board of Supervisors submitted a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last fall opposing the project. Supervisor Anthony Botelho said his concerns are that the county may lose income from the tax base of private property owners and also noted that “forever, in perpetuity, is a long time.”

“My question is: What would the fiscal impact on the county be?” Botelho asked. “I don’t really see it as being that much money because of the type of lands involved, and hopefully we’re doing things elsewhere in the county that would offset any lack of income, but I’d still like to know that.”

Despite those concerns, Botelho said his thinking has evolved on the issue and that he would not want to remove any tools that help ranching families plan their own estates and would protect ranching in the county.

“There is a strong suspicion of the motivations of federal government and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service among some ranchers,” Botelho said. “But it is a voluntary program, and I don’t think it’s the place of local government to restrict the options of families trying to manage their land.”

According to Forrest, there would be no fiscal impact to the county if it were to be among the regions included in the project. "The property remains in private ownership, and the landowners keep paying County taxes," Forrest said.

San Benito County Assessor Tom Slavich agreed, saying "I don’t believe this program would have much of a fiscal impact on the county’s property tax rolls."

Chad Zgragen has read the USFWS proposal and sees it as an opportunity for local ranchers.

“I do believe it is a good idea to give San Benito County property owners the option of an easement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Zgragen said.

“If the county is to be included in the Foothills Legacy project it would be a good option for landowners. I feel easements in general are a great opportunity for small family ranches to secure their property for future generations and also help to keep the landscape open.The main argument I keep hearing is basically the fear of the federal government taking over property. I don't believe any of the restrictions placed on easement properties to be too overbearing. We live in a state where environmentalists have a huge amount of power and I think there is a good chance we could see a lot of restrictions placed on property owners (especially cattle producers) that are similar to that of easements in the near future with no compensation,” he added. 

“This is a voluntary program. In my opinion it should be up to each individual property owner to decide for themselves if the program is right for them,” Zgragen said. “We need to keep in mind that there are a lot of landowners in the county that do not run cattle or don't have much of a concern about cattle on their property. These landowners should have an opportunity to make this decision for themselves as well. We can't let one small group of people make the decision for all landowners in the county.”

Concerned residents are encouraged to fill out the Public Comment Form and return to the FWS and Board of Supervisors by SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 15. Supervisors will listen to comments from the public on the issue at their regular scheduled meetings on Tuesday, August 20 and September 10, at 9 a.m. in the Board Chambers 481 Fourth Street. To see a full copy of the CLFA Draft Environmental Assessment, click here.

Submitting Comments:

Comments may be submitted at the open houses, or through the following:

Email: [email protected] Fax: 916/414-6497
Mail: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest Region, Refuge Planning, 2800 Cottage Way, W-1832, Sacramento, CA 95825

Deadline for Comments: Comments must be received by September 15, 2013, to be considered for development of the final proposal.

Do you think San Benito County should be included in the California Foothill Legacy Area? Leave your comments below.






Julie Finigan Morris

Julie Finigan Morris is a journalist and business owner. She has worked as staff writer for several news organizations, including Thomson Newspapers in Washington D.C., McClatchy Newspapers and Scripps News Service. She is also the Co-Founder and Owner of Morris Grassfed and has lived in San Benito County for more than 25 years. Morris has also worked in corporate communications, marketing, and the non-profit sector. She is a founding board member of BenitoLink and currently serves on its Editorial Committee. She recently published her first novel, Exit Strategy. Visit her online at