The Sublette County Journal
Volume 5, Number 14 - 11/30/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
by Albert Sommers
By the year 2025, Sublette County will have experienced climatic events and natural resource management decisions which will have altered both its landscape and socioeconomic makeup. In 2001, in a rush to judgment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the sage grouse as an endangered species. From 2002-2012, the nation's winters produce the coldest and deepest snows ever recorded. In the spring of 2010, the combination of saturated soils and a mid-sized earthquake buckle the Hoback Canyon, forming Lake Bondurant. Highway access to Jackson from Sublette County must now occur via South Pass and Togwotee Pass. Fire ants in states south and east of the Rocky Mountains decimate the livestock industry in those states by 2005, pushing Wyoming beef prices to more than $5/lb.
The listing of the sage grouse slows Sublette County's gas development to 10% of its year 2000 expansion rate due to habitat protection guidelines enforced by the USFWS. However, wells already in place and slow but steady recruitment of additional wells maintain Sublette County's tax base. Enhancement of the tax base from gas sales occurs during the winters of 2002-2012, when gas prices triple from the rise in winter consumption in eastern states.
In 2005, Sublette County stockmen are notified by the USFWS that they must reduce their cattle herds by 40% to meet standards imposed by the listing of the sage grouse. At the last hour, however, cattle are declared a critical food source for the endangered grizzly bear and gray wolf. The winter of 2003 has decimated the elk population on the National Elk Refuge and Gros Ventre areas because the federal government forced the elimination of elk feeding in those areas in 2002. The loss of elk carrion coupled with the destruction of white bark pine from blister rust results in cattle becoming the number one food source for both the grizzly bear and the gray wolf. The conflict between the grizzly bear and the gray wolf versus the sage grouse ends up in federal court, and an injunction is issued by the courts preventing the 40% reduction in the county's cattle herds. By 2010, the federal courts still have not resolved the Grizzly vs. Grouse case.
The sage grouse population increases in spite of continued livestock grazing, largely due to lush forage created from 9 years of abundant moisture. In 2012, an avian flu infects the county's raven and crow population and they are nearly extirpated from the Rocky Mountain region. The loss of this predator causes the sage grouse population to triple west-wide. Sage grouse are not removed from the endangered species list, because the USFWS has lost the regulations explaining the delisting process.
The explosion in sage grouse numbers produces new leks on all public and private airstrips and airports in the county, which are then abandoned by humans because of noise standards associated with sage grouse guidelines imposed by the USFWS. The closing of the highway between Jackson and Pinedale, coupled with the lack of air transportation into Sublette County, makes recreational ranching highly inconvenient. Several ranches are put up for sale by disgruntled millionaires, which leaves only long-time family ranchers and those newcomers truly interested in the land and ranching. With yearlings bringing $5/lb in 2025, and land values declining, existing family ranches are able to expand.
By 2025, elk, deer and antelope populations have recovered to all time highs from the killer winter of 2003. The county's human population has not increased from year 2000 levels. Many people left the county during the bad winters of 2002-2012. Population recruitment for the county comes up from the south through Rock Springs and Kemmerer. These people seem to have a better appreciation for the people who live here and the sagebrush country we live in than those who had drifted down from the north. A static human population has slowed the loss of sagebrush habitat from 40-acre ranchettes, and ended the need for additional subdivisions. High gas and cattle prices combine with a hardy tourist trade to maintain Sublette County's economic base.
These fictional events would create a Sublette County which looks more like 1975 than 2025, and a cattle market exceeding even the 1950s. I would like to see the county in 2025 resemble 1975 in its level of development, and a cattle market stronger than it was in the 1950s, but time moves forward, not back. We have the choice to allow change to entirely dictate the character of this county, or we can attempt to bend this change in a direction which preserves the characteristics of this county which we enjoy. The challenge is to preserve the unique qualities, while maintaining a sense of fairness to landowners.
In the year 2025, I would still like to see Hereford cows and calves grazing on the sagebrush hills of the Mesa. I want to see a long line of cowboys and cows winding their way down the Hennick Draw on their annual drift to Pinyon Ridge and Fish Creek Park. I want to see large flocks of sage grouse migrating from the Mesa to the Soaphole in the early winter, as I did when I was a child. I enjoy the beauty of the dark fat bodies and bright shiny black eyes of a mule deer doe in the fall, and their determined migration to the mountains in the spring. I enjoy the curiosity of a buck antelope, the seeming lack of coordination of a calf moose, the laziness of a fat horny toad, the energy of a chipmunk, the adaptability of the elk, and the roll of a big brown trout. I don't want to see a house every quarter of a mile all the way down the Green River, New Fork or East Fork valleys. I don't want to see any industry which brings large numbers of full-time residents to the county.
I believe our mix of oil and gas, ranching and tourism produces an adequate economic base, while still preserving vital open space. The oil and gas industry provides the capital, while ranching provides the open space. Tourism provides a check and balance against industry, and a healthy main street. These three segments of our economy create a unique balance, and the expansion of one at the expense of any other will significantly change the character of this county that I love.
The challenge is to develop a mechanism which promotes, enhances and preserves the balance between these three economic interests. 80% of Sublette County land lies in federal ownership, and all three economic interests are dependent upon the ability to utilize those lands. Sublette County residents and county commissioners must present a unified voice to federal land managers, supporting the responsible use of federal lands by these vital economic interests. Sublette County must be actively involved in all federal land use planning which affects it.
The tougher problem lies with an expanding county population and its effect upon the Sublette County landscape. More people move each year to Sublette County to work or simply to own high desert and mountain property, which has and will continue to drastically drive up land values in the county. Each year, ranching seems to become less economically viable and more time consuming, which places more large tracts of land on the market. As more ranches hit the market, more 40-acre ranchettes are inevitable. I believe most ranchers who have the capital will continue to operate, simply because they love the lifestyle - provided that the economics of the business don't worsen. If the retention of ranching and open space in this county is important, then some solutions are needed quickly.
Any vision for the future possessed by the citizens of this county must be accomplished by solutions which are equitable to all parties, especially the landowners. The county and/or state could simply legislate zoning regulations which would prevent development. The state could have 80- to 160-acre development parameters established, but these would devalue property and be a major infringement upon landowners' private property rights. No one segment of the county's population should suffer the full impact of a county land-use vision. I believe all segments of the county should share in the costs of a landscape planning effort, if open space is truly important to all. My solution would be called the Sublette County Landscape Preservation Board. The purpose of this board would be two-fold.
1) The board would oversee a Conservation Easement Fund. The purchase of conservation easements from willing landowners would occur on lands designated intrinsic to the character of Sublette County. These conservation easement purchases would be based upon the development value of the land, e.g., A-1 property could become 40-acre developments.
2) The board would manage a Mitigation Fund for future development needs. If a developer wishes to change the zoning designation of a parcel of land, and that parcel has been designated intrinsic to the character of the county, then he must pay a mitigation fee to the board's Mitigation Fund. This mitigation money could be used to either mitigate the impact of that particular project, or simply added to the Conservation Easement Fund.
The Conservation Easement Fund would be funded in a three-part manner, if the state would legislate the mechanism and if the county's citizens and landowners supported the idea of the Fund. Each of the three funding sources would be required to produce a third of the revenues, or the Fund and the board would be dissolved.
Funding Source 1: A 3% (or some other agreed-upon rate) Transaction Fee on all real estate bought and sold in the county. Buyer and seller would both be responsible for submitting 1.5% of the purchase price of the real estate, whether it be a home in Pinedale or a 10,000 acre ranch. If landowners wish to maintain the character of this county, then they must help pay for it. This Transaction Fee could only be imposed if the landowners of the county voted it into existence. This funding source would be supplemented by an additional 3% Transaction Fee levied upon the 6% commission collected by real estate brokers. This would amount to about .2% of the purchase price of a piece of property. The real estate industry promotes the sale of land in the county, and should help to preserve the characteristics of this county that help them sell real estate.
This two-part funding source would generate revenues equal to approximately 3.2% of the purchase price of all property sold in this county, and would provide the benchmark for the other two funding sources. Again, the percentages I have chosen are examples only.
Funding Source 2: The county would assess a mill levy, which would generate revenues equaling those generated by the Transaction Fees. Those people who own businesses and live in the county should help preserve the county. This would be voted on by a referendum submitted to the county's citizens.
Funding Source 3: The Scenic and Wildlife Fund would receive revenue from 4 distinct areas, possibly in unequal proportions. However, the Scenic and Wildlife Fund must generate revenue equal to the other two sources. It would generate revenue from the following:
A) Money contributed from a Sublette County Lodging Tax. Those who seek to bring more tourism to Sublette County, and the tourists who come here, should help preserve the county.
B) A Wyoming Game and Fish Department Landscape Preservation Stamp. Hunters and anglers who utilize this county should help preserve wildlife habitat and migration corridors.
C) National and state environmental organizations should also help preserve the landscape and wildlife resources they promote and claim to protect. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy should come up with cash, not just the promise of tax breaks, to help preserve the landscape.
D) Private contributions from individuals or corporations may also be a source of funding. Whether it is $5 from an individual or $5,000 from a corporation, the money would help preserve our county.
Using the rates that I mentioned, the three funding sources would generate revenues of about 10% of the purchase price of all property sold in Sublette County. This would mean that for every ten acres sold, at least one acre could be placed under a conservation easement. If you reduced the total revenues generated to 5% of the purchase price, then one acre could be set aside for every 20 acres sold. Purchasing conservation easements from ranchers at fair market value could allow many ranchers to have the capital that they need to operate their ranches for future generations. Some ranchers would never agree to a conservation easement on their land, but I believe others would. The Sublette County Landscape Preservation Board could help preserve Sublette County's ranching tradition, wildlife, and wonderful scenery for generations to come. I do not know if this is a viable option or even a good option, but I do know that the people who think this county is remarkable had better start looking for solutions.
Mr. Sommers ranches in Daniel. He is a member of the Journal Editorial Board.
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