Wealthy 'amenity' ranchers taking over the West

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- A new study suggests that in many parts of the American West, the grizzled, leathery rancher riding the range to take care of his cattle and make a buck is being replaced by wealthy "amenity" owners who fly in on weekends, fish in their private trout ponds, and often prefer roaming elk to Herefords. They don't much care whether or not the ranch turns a profit.

And many of them think that wolves are neat.

In a 10-year survey of ranchland ownership change on private lands around Yellowstone National Park, scientists found only 26 percent of the large ranches that changed hands went to traditional ranchers, while "amenity buyers" snapped up 39 percent of the properties, and another 26 percent went to investors, developers or part-time ranchers.

The study was done by researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Colorado and the University of Otago in New Zealand, and published in Society and Natural Resources, a professional journal. It was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Yellowstone Heritage.

This phenomenon, scientists say, is a reflection of forces affecting many parts of the American West, in which ranchlands become get-away retreats for the rich, or vehicles to fulfill a childhood fantasy. Livestock production often takes a back seat to scenic enjoyment, fishing and solitude. In a number of cases, wealthy owners are experimenting with restoration of native ecosystems, large scale conservation projects, and innovative approaches to blend conventional ranching with non-lethal predator control.

Traditional ranchers are finding themselves priced out of business, while a whole new cottage industry is emerging of managers who jokingly call themselves "ranch butler," "ranch ambassador," or simply "mouse trapper." They are well-trained professionals responsible for the complex operations of a modern ranch, but also are required to keep it looking nice for when the owner comes to visit.

The research included analysis of sales and ownership data in 10 counties, and numerous interviews with ranchers, local residents, rural appraisers, real estate agents, conservationists, and others.

"This trend has been going on for a while, but people repeatedly point to the 1990s as when this ownership transition really picked up speed," said Hannah Gosnell, an assistant professor of geography at OSU. "A weak agricultural economy combined with the increasing age of the average rancher and the reluctance of most ranch kids to take over the operation, making it hard for many ranchers to resist selling out when land prices skyrocketed due to increased demand for high-amenity ranch properties."

Adding to the temptation, Gosnell said, was the fact that "ranchers could sell a relatively small operation near Yellowstone and upgrade to a larger, more profitable livestock ranch in South Dakota or Nebraska, much like the equity refugees fleeing California for Oregon."

Money made in the booming 90s and nostalgic movies such as "A River Runs Through It," which showed a family growing up fly fishing along scenic rivers in western Montana, helped spur a huge demand for ranches where you could get away from it all and get back to nature, Gosnell said. A few areas had ranch turnover rates during the 90s of almost 50 percent, and in the most sought-after landscapes, like the Madison Valley and Paradise Valley in Montana, and the Upper Green River Basin in Wyoming, more than 60 percent of the acres sold during the 1990s went to amenity buyers.

In many cases that ownership shift brought with it a very different set of attitudes, belief systems, land use plans and goals, and is changing the way of life in many parts of the West.

In particular, the new study examined the effects that these changes may have on conservation efforts, since land fragmentation and wildlife habitat protection are key concerns.

"Contrary to some concerns, we found that many of the new owners did not develop their lands into smaller fragments, in ways that would put critical habitats at risk," Gosnell said. "Many large ranches tended to stay intact when they changed hands. And some traditional conflicts, such as between predators and livestock, are being lessened by amenity owners who count wildlife, even wolves and other predators, as just another amenity. Many new owners would rather see deer and elk than cattle or sheep."

In many places these differing priorities have resulted in social conflicts between the new owners and more traditional ranchers. In the past, ranchers commonly allowed neighbors and other community members access to their land for hunting and other forms of recreation - now there are more "no trespassing" signs and hunting is often discouraged. Some of the modern owners, Gosnell said, are unaware of the threat that invasive weeds can pose to neighboring properties. And water that used to be allocated for irrigation is increasingly being sought for trout ponds and instream flow protection.

Although some new owners become integral parts of nearby communities, many newcomers are not big socializers – they want the land for privacy, and are more apt to donate money to a local cause than show up at a community meeting. Their management style may still include ranching, but usually not hands-on and rarely with a mandate for large profits. "As long as the place looks nice, the owner is happy," is something Gosnell said she often heard from managers. "One owner wanted his cattle kept from grazing near the main drive into the ranch because he thought they were unsightly."

The shift under way is so large, the researchers said, that some real estate agents now specialize in recreational ranches, and not just in resort areas. Although this study looked at desirable lands near Yellowstone, it omitted large resort areas and urban areas such as Jackson Hole and Bozeman.

The various changes will affect local politics, economics, water management, wildlife conservation, livestock management practices, and a multitude of other issues, scientists said.

"These are powerful and fundamental forces that show no sign of slowing down," Gosnell said. "Traditional ranching in the American West is under a great deal of pressure, and we have land use and water laws that were set up a century ago for a completely different lifestyle. We need to understand what is going on so we can develop land management policies and institutions that work."

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By David Stauth, 541-737-0787


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