Sales tax aims to conserve, support working ranches — The Mountain Mail

By Merle Baranczyk, Mail Editor and Publisher

September 5, 2018


Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part story.

Conserving and supporting working ranches and farms and rural landscapes is one of three elements in the proposed countywide 0.25 percent sales tax question to benefit conservation.

This could mean assisting ranchers with some type of annual payment in exchange for a rancher’s conservation practices.

The other two elements of the proposed county conservation sales tax would be used to strengthen forest health and manage impacts of growth on recreation resources.

The tax would generate approximately $1 million in annual revenues to the county.

Ballot language stipulates that a minimum of 25 percent of funds generated be used to strengthen forest health and another 25 percent go toward conserving and supporting working ranches, farms and rural landscapes; and 5 percent be used for managing impacts of growth.

Commissioners would have discretion on use of the remaining 45 percent. Final decisions on all project funding would be made by commissioners.

Cindy Williams, co-lead with County Commissioner Greg Felt of Envision Chaffee County, the entity that is the impetus behind the sales tax question, said support for county ranches and farms could include county participation in conservation easements, where property owners agree not to develop their land in perpetuity in exchange for cash.

“But to some, perpetuity is a big word,” Williams said.

Some ranchers see making a commitment to conservation while they personally are operating their lands but hesitate making commitments for future generations.

She said tax proceeds could be used to support ranchers who meet certain criteria in their operations, which could include agreeing to flood irrigation and ground water recharge, providing wildlife habitat, providing deer and elk winter grazing and scenic view sheds.

Instead of tying up ranches in perpetuity through conservation easements, Williams said ranchers might receive $8,000-$10,000 each year for a long-term agreement to follow specific conservation practices.

She cited as examples programs in Florida where ranchers and farmers are compensated for their efforts to recharge groundwater to the Everglades and in Oregon for improving salmon habitat.

Felt said ranchers, for example, could be asked to make commitments for their lifetimes, while they are operating a ranch, in exchange for annual compensation.

In meetings with ranchers in the past year, Felt said one of the issues noted was getting legal help. One of the ways to assist ranch families, he said, would be to arrange pro bono legal help for such things as grazing rights or estate questions.

Felt said 97 percent of those responding to an Envision survey said they strongly or somewhat strongly valued the county’s agricultural lands.

He said in talking to ranchers, many believed they were in an adversarial relationship with other county residents. But survey results indicate otherwise, that county residents do value ag lands, something he said ranchers have come to realize.

Felt said visitor surveys note the county’s rural landscapes as a defining element in their visits to the county and that some 49 percent of county residents have some tie to outdoor recreation.

“This is a special valley,” he said, and a challenge is “how to keep it special” through its landscapes.

He said some ranching families make $30,000 to $40,000 annually off their ranch. Adding 20 to 25 percent to their ranch income would be significant. It could help buy time for families to look at developing other possible revenue sources.

He said other programs, such as the “Working Lands – Helping Hands” program, can also help ranchers.

Williams said specific guidelines for supporting the valley’s ranch and farm community have not been set, but work on the guidelines is expected to start later this month.

Third element: Managing impacts of growth

Managing impacts of growth, specifically as it relates to outdoor recreation, is the third element where the proposed Chaffee County 0.25 percent sales tax would be employed.

Williams said sales tax revenues could be used to develop a recreation impact monitoring system.

The system would use volunteer and nonprofit entities to monitor outdoor recreation, including monitoring water quality from usage impacts on public lands.

User groups would gather data on recreation resources such as monitoring the Arkansas River corridor for sediment.

Funds could also be used to leverage additional funding for signage on how visitors might use a resource or to set up rock barriers to block access to sensitive or recovering areas.

Williams said an example where funds could be used is in the Fourmile Travel Management Area southeast of Buena Vista.

She said state and federal agencies have responsibilities to manage and maintain public lands but do not have the funding or manpower to do so.

Fourmile is seeing increased use with some users damaging terrain by setting new trails where trails were not present, by setting campsites and building campfires in new areas and collecting firewood and cutting trees for campfires.

Williams said the sales tax would be used as a stream of income – seed money – to leverage funding from sources outside the county for projects at Fourmile and other areas.

Felt said the growing use of trails on Methodist Mountain by hikers and bikers is another area in need of improvements. He said inadequate trailhead parking forces users to park cars along the county road.

He said Forest Service officials have reported on a “recreation wave” of users. In forests near Bailey, Felt said officials there said they are overwhelmed by a growing number of users and have difficulty managing resources.

Though it’s not in the language of the ballot question, Felt said the county will want to make an annual report to residents on projects funded and work taken on with the sales tax.

“It would be crazy” not to make reports of work done, he said. “We will want to celebrate accomplishments.”

Felt said commissioners would set up an advisory committee or committees to make recommendations on how funds would be used.

Commissioners would make final decisions on project funding.

News stories published in The Mountain Mail Sept. 4 and 5, 2018. Reprinted here with permission of the publisher.


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