The Sheridan Community Land Trust is a newborn with important friends. “Three years ago we did a community assessment and discovered strong support for protecting the treasures we have here,” says board member Judy Slack. The mayor of Sheridan (Dave Kinskey) and a Sheridan County Commissioner (Terry Cram) lead an effort to set up a community land trust and gave it start-up money from city and county budget lines that support non-profits. The group has 12 board members, a part-time executive director, and volunteers who work on four committees. It also has a broader focus than most conservation-oriented land trusts. The four working groups cover open space, recreation, and wildlife; affordable housing; agricultural easements; and historic preservation.
We met Judy and Chuck Bentzen, a member of the open space group, at the Land Trust’s first easement, a nine-acre stretch of the Little Goose River just south of town. Protecting river corridors is likely to be a major focus. Roger Wilson, a board member who is active on the land protection side, says that the group is particularly interested in protecting the Tongue River from Sheridan north. Seven private owners control this stretch of the river. Wilson is talking with them and with people at the state and federal levels, as well as the Nature Conservancy.
The Sheridan Land Trust is also allied with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, which is a major player out here. Ranchers who don’t want their spreads carved up into second home sites are lining up to donate agricultural easements, says Bo Bowman, who coordinates the donations. The Stock Growers Association is a big, influential group of landowners. Some of them are quite wealthy, and most of them are rock-ribbed small government conservatives. But this isn’t a partisan issue, says Slack. People who love the big, open landscapes of Wyoming have all kinds of political views. Since land trusts are nonprofit organizations that make voluntary agreements with private landowners, at arm’s length from the government, they can talk to small-government folks comfortably. And anyone who has valuable land can save quite a bit on their local property taxes and get a big federal tax credit by donating an easement. This is especially helpful if the donor hates to pay taxes.
It will take a lot of money and clout to do something like this, and Wyoming has both. The Padlock Ranch (where we met the Governor’s conservation tour) has donated large agricultural easements to the Stock Growers Association, and the Nature Conservancy owns similarly large easements on ranch property in the eastern slope of the Bighorns. Sally Morton of the Conservancy’s Wyoming office sits on the Sheridan Land Trust’s board. “The big groups are working on big projects,” says Slack. “Our group is focused only on Sheridan County, so we are going to take the neighborhood-level things they can’t do.”
Slack is active in the historic preservation group, which is trying to negotiate the first easements in the state of Wyoming that protects the exteriors of historic buildings, trails, archaeological sites, and other historic resources. “The local lawyers have never seen a preservation easement before,” she says. “But there is a need for it. Ranches that donate agricultural easements often have landmark stone barns and houses that are essential to the character of the place, and this is the way to protect them.”
As a community land trust, the Sheridan group also aims to set up affordable housing in a community where rising home prices are forcing working-class people into marginal living situations. “We will own the land, the Sheridan Housing Action Committee will build the houses, and the homeowners will take out long-term leases with us,” says Slack.
It sounded to us as if the Sheridan Land Trust is actually three or four groups under one not-for-profit umbrella. The group is mostly in the planning and idea stage, and there are going to be some rough spots when the differing agendas of preservation, affordable housing, and open space protection advocates meet on the Board of Directors. But Sheridan needs all three things badly. Sprawl and gentrification are ramping up with the energy boom, and the group will be challenged to choose which opportunities to follow. Slack says the group hopes to secure one or two easements a year for the time being, while it develops membership and fund-raising. That would cover the tip of a very large iceberg. The elements are in place for very rapid growth, if the group can handle it.