Ranching in the American West has a long and storied history. Most of today’s ranches can be traced back to the days of homesteading. Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the Homestead Act encouraged Western migration by providing settlers 160 acres of public land. In exchange, homesteaders were required to complete five years of continuous residence, or pay $1.25 per acre after 6 months, in order to receive deeded ownership of the land. The Homestead Act led to the distribution of 270 million acres of public land before being abolished in 1986.
“Farming and Ranching was stable.”
As difficult as it was, farming and ranching, was a more stable and sustainable industry than the “boom-to-bust” cycles experienced in mining, trapping and logging. Many of the Western states relied heavily on the Homestead Act to attract settlers to their territory, provide a tax base to support statehood, and establish an economic base for other businesses and industries. As a result, strong communities with a commitment to social values, education, and personal responsibility were spawned throughout the territories, and formed a large part of the foundation of American prosperity in the 20th century.
Fast forward 100 years and you will find a much different situation. The industrialization of America resulted in mass urbanization and a subsequent degradation of the rural economy. The working ranches that had been handed down from generation to generation were now finding their children abandoning the ranch for the social and economic promises of the bigger cities. The average rancher is now in his sixties, and owns a ranch that has been in his family for over 50 years. Industry analysts estimate that over half of the ranches in the west will change hands in the next 10 years.
THE STATES ARE GROWING
This turnover is occurring at the same time the Western states are becoming the fastest growing region in America. As the West continues to grow, the ranching homesteads of the early pioneers are fast becoming the most desirable locations for new home subdivisions and mountain retreats. The conversion of land from agriculture to residential, commercial and industrial use is taking place at over twice the growth rate of the United States as a whole. In the West, the amount of land carved up and swallowed by development rose from 20 million acres in 1970 to 42 million acres in 2000. Across Colorado, an average of 90,000 acres of farm and ranchland are converted to other uses every year. In 1992, Colorado’s north and central mountain ranches counted 233,719 head of cattle. In 2004, that number was roughly 150,000.
INCREASE OF DEMAND
The increasing demand for these pristine valleys is driving land prices out of reach to make farming and ranching a profitable business. The Colorado Department of Agriculture reports that fifty-seven percent of those who own Colorado’s 31,361 ranches and farms work off the farm to make ends meet, with 39 percent working more than 200 days off the farm.
So, who is the next generation of ranch owner? A recent study by the University of Colorado, Oregon State University and New Zealand’s University of Otago analyzed ranch sales in 10 Montana and Wyoming counties from 1990 to 2001. Just 26% of those who bought parcels 400 acres or larger were traditional ranchers. Nearly 40% were “amenity” buyers — millionaire out-of-towners who don’t rely on the ranch to make a living, the report said. The rest were real estate investors, part-time ranchers, developers and others.
PERSONAL HUNTING AND FARMS
Wealthy absentee owners are converting more of the West’s ranches and farms into personal hunting and fishing playgrounds. Amenity ranchers are not a new phenomenon, but their growing appetite for these retreats is. Even as housing prices slump in cities and suburbs, the market flourishes for getaways with hundreds or thousands of acres of mountain, forest or prairie. In some cases, new owners leave ranch operations intact. In many others, they restore wetlands, dig trout ponds, build mansion-size houses and return cropland to grass for horses. Some remove cattle so elk and deer have more to graze.
Today’s ranchers wrestle with the fact that their cattle and hay are worth exponentially less than the water that runs through the land and the land itself. Maintaining livestock herds in fierce winters and fending off multimillion-dollar offers for land become more difficult each year. What some ranchers have done to help preserve open spaces is to set aside land in conservation easements. Others have chosen to improve the recreational potential of their ranches prior to selling, thus creating more value and higher prices to the next generation of buyers. While there is no uniform consensus on what is the right thing to do, one thing is for certain; once the rancher leaves, and the land is carved up with roads and homes across the meadows, river valleys and tree lines, the homesteader’s spirit of the American West will be lost forever.