Why some farmers and ranchers refuse to give in to development pressure
The Mountain West has lost millions of acres of agricultural land in recent decades. And that shift is obvious in Wapiti, Wyo., a small town on the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park.
Along the main highway, home construction sites and for-sale signs dot the landscape. Locals like Shaleas Harrison say the area used to be filled with working ranches and open spaces.
“You don't really notice it one year or the next year, but all of a sudden, you'll come here and it's been a while and you're just like, ‘Wow. There's five new houses that have gone up,’ she said. “Little by little, we're fragmenting this landscape.”
Property values in Park County jumped 16 percent last year and 24 percent in 2021. For many smaller towns in the region, the pandemic saw a flurry of real estate activity, and demand for land is still outpacing supply.
Harrison is the Wyoming Resource Coordinator with the Western Landowner’s Alliance, which supports farms and ranches. She said there’s a lot of value in maintaining open landscapes. But growth can change a community quickly through cultural shifts, rising property taxes or shifting wildlife migration patterns.
“You have houses that don't have any vegetation. You have fences. You have noise…and there is a certain tolerance that animals can handle,” Harrison said. “But in general, what you're doing is changing the landscape to a different type of use. And the wildlife would prefer not to come here.”
Last year, Wyoming lost 500,000 acres of farm and ranch land, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the Mountain West, more than seven million acres have disappeared in the past decade, mostly in Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico.
Cattle grazing can harm the environment – contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, aiding deforestation and damaging soils. But maintaining open rangelands can also benefit food supplies, forage for animals and local economies.
“Society has to begin to realize and understand that there is a value to these working lands in ecosystem services,” Harrison said. “We're gonna lose these western landscapes if we don't start planning right now. And maybe in some places, it's a bit too late.”
So, many ranchers are starting to plan for the future of their land to avoid development. Priscilla and Matt Bell own a small cattle ranch near Wapiti and have seen several nearby properties transformed into housing complexes. They say very few people in the area still make a living solely through agriculture – in part because of how challenging the work is.
“Most of our vehicles have close to 300,000 miles on them,” Priscilla Bell said. “That doesn't bother me. Yes, I would like to have more money just because I'd like to know what that felt like once. But it is what it is, and it’s my choice to live like this.”
In recent years, inflation has put increased pressure on the Bell’s ranch. Prices have risen for farm equipment, hay, diesel fuel and other production expenses. At the same time, Matt Bell said he could probably sell off at least 70 acres for at least $10,000 an acre – and retire early.
“But I don’t want to sell it,” he said. “Because I don’t want to see any more houses.”
Priscilla Bell added, “I don't want to be a hypocrite. We don't want to cuss the damn development and then turn around and sell…But I see why people are doing it. [They’re] tired of the battle. Because it's a constant battle to try to make a living.”
The Bells want to make sure their land doesn’t get subdivided, so they considered conservation easements or trusts. Because they don’t have any kids, they plan to pass the land down to someone who works with them – and who also dislikes development.
For ranchers and farmers with large families, the long-term process can get complicated. Jack Cobb ranches in Savery, near the Colorado border. The town lies next to the meandering Little Snake River and has about 34 residents.
Cobb’s property is on its seventh generation, which means there are lots of relatives – and not everyone likes cows. Questions over what to do with the future of a large working property can often end up in lawsuits, especially when the land alone is worth tens of millions of dollars.
“We always talk about the three generational rule,” Cobb said. “The first one builds it. The second one kind of builds it a little bit better. The third one comes along – has no idea what it took to build it – and then they lose it.”
Knowing that trend, Cobb’s whole family sat down a few years ago to talk about what to do. The situation felt tense at times, but in the end, everybody wanted the same thing. They created a dynasty trust, meaning nobody can break off a piece of the property to cash out. That keeps the land intact unless the entire ranch is sold.
Cobb still wonders sometimes if this was the right decision, since he gave up the rights to a small personal fortune. But he said keeping the land and family together is priceless.
“I'm down at my nephew's birthday party and everybody's there. And I told my wife and my kids, ‘Put a price on this. You don't have enough zeros behind that dollar to take this away,’” he said. “I knew if we didn't do this and we started to splinter, we would never have a Christmas together again.”
For many farmers and ranchers, the right financial decision might be selling to the highest bidder. It often sets up generational wealth and allows folks to retire from a life of hard work. This pressure is likely to continue altering the culture and economics of the West.
Yet many landowners are staying put – maybe because of stubbornness or for the love of their neighbors and families. Or maybe because they don’t know of another way to live their lives.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.