Sunday morning, our good friend and partner Luke Lynch was killed in an avalanche while backcountry skiing on Mt. Moran just outside his hometown of Jackson, Wyoming. Luke loved the mountains. And the forest… and the high desert and sage brush steppe, and the rivers which lace it all together. He could not have been more committed to the conservation of open spaces in Wyoming and he worked hard just as he played hard, all the while fixated on adding more land to the conserved side of the ledger and ensuring the opportunity for future generations to work on the land and to enjoy it as he did. Although Luke’s personal interactions with the land were as an avid sportsman, he understood the importance of working lands and how critical Wyoming’s ranchlands are to wildlife and the habitat they need to survive.
As State Director for the Conservation Fund, Luke was an outstanding partner to the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust. Together, “the Fund” (as Luke always referred to his organization) and our Land Trust completed conservation easements on 13 projects since 2005. The Fund, thanks to Luke’s efforts to conserve sage grouse habitat, was also a donor to several additional projects that our Land Trust closed recently. All in, Luke was instrumental in the conservation of 16 Wyoming ranches, just shy of 61,000 acres. The quintessential “deal guy”, Luke would want you to know that the value of these permanent conservation easements exceeded $30 million. And, we have seven new projects we were working on together; my email box is full of messages from Luke, some unanswered due to my travels late this past week. How much I wish I could reply to them now.
One of the projects we have been working on is the protection of 4,000 acres of working ranchland at the base of Devils Tower, America’s first national monument. Owned by the Driskill family for more than a hundred years, it was a project that Luke cared about because it integrated all the pieces of what was important to him – wildlife habitat, an important viewshed for climbers and travelers visiting the monument, history, and a family dedicated to conservation. Now a State Senator for Crook County, Ogden Driskill was the Chairman of the Stock Growers Land Trust when we first started to work in partnership with Luke and The Conservation Fund. This morning he said what we all know to be profoundly true, “Luke was truly a leader in facilitating and funding conservation – his loss will be greatly felt by all in the conservation world.”
The only thing that Luke loved more than the outdoors was his family. Luke and his wife Kathy have three boys, Max, Will and Sam. Max was born in March 2009, Will in July 2011 and Sam arrived two years later. I loved listening to Luke laugh as he described the antics of his “pack” and their adventures. I am saddened that those adventures were cut short and that Luke won’t be there to teach them to become proficient in the things he loved so much to do. But I know that he will be watching and smiling as they venture out.
The “Charlie Ball Place” conservation easement will protect more than 1,700 acres of rangeland and important wildlife habitat from development and subdivision, keeping it in agriculture and available to wildlife and future generations of producers. The Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust expressed its appreciation to ranchers Zach and Patty Roberts for placing a portion of their long-time ranching operation under conservation easement. Almost two miles of Horse Creek and over three miles of Onion Creek and other tributaries to Horse Creek offer significant riparian habitat to wildlife and the conservation easement encompasses property entirely within the Daniel Sage Grouse Core Area.
In addition to providing forage to the Roberts Cattle Co., the property provides significant habitat resources for large game in Sublette County. The property is entirely within Mule Deer and Moose Crucial Ranges as well as Elk and Pronghorn Antelope Seasonal Range. Zach and Patty Roberts said “We are very happy to have finished this conservation easement with Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust and its funding partners. This conservation easement assists in protecting wildlife habitat and sage grouse habitat for future generations.”
Funders to the project include Wyoming’s Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust (WWNRT) which, under the guidance of Executive Director Bob Budd, has supported a number of projects benefitting Sage Grouse, including habitat enhancement projects as well as permanent conservation easements in Core Areas in order to help stave off the listing of Sage Grouse as an the Endangered Species.
Bob Budd said, “This easement with the Roberts family is another great example of the landowners of Wyoming taking steps to maintain their ranching heritage, and at the same time, conserving habitats of critical importance to species like Sage-grouse and mule deer. Zach and Patty are great resource managers with their hearts in the right place. Congratulations to them on this achievement.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service cites habitat fragmentation as a leading factor in the decline of Sage Grouse in the western states, and the voluntary commitment of private landowners toward the goal of minimizing or precluding habitat fragmentation was acknowledged in a letter to the WWNRT, “Conservation easements can serve as an extremely valuable tool in accomplishing that goal. Given the typical ‘in perpetuity’ term placed on these easements, we consider easements not only biologically effective in preventing and reducing the habitat fragmentation that negatively affects the sage grouse, but also as a regulatory mechanism we can fully consider in our listing decisions.”
In his Executive Order, Governor Mead stated, “It is critical that existing land uses and landowner activities continue to occur in core areas, particularly agricultural activities on private lands.” Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust Executive Director Pam Dewell underscored the important contribution of private lands to the Cowboy State’s defining wide open spaces. “Wyoming leads the country in the size of ag operations, averaging 2,745 acres per farm or ranch, versus the national average of 418 acres in 2014. With more than 30 million acres of agricultural land, we can thank Wyoming producers for keeping these lands open and available for the production of food and fiber and the magnificent views we all enjoy every day.”
Senior Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials joined Wyoming Governor Matt Mead today in announcing the launch of the nation’s first conservation bank for greater sage-grouse. The bank will manage a vast expanse of central Wyoming for sage-grouse, mule deer and other wildlife, allowing energy development and other economic activities to proceed on lands elsewhere in the state.
At a ceremony in the State Capitol hosted by Governor Mead, Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Lyons, Deputy Director for the Service Jim Kurth and Jeff Meyer, Managing Partner of the Sweetwater River Conservancy, formalized the agreement creating the project, which will rank as the largest conservation bank in the country. The Stock Growers Land Trust was named as an integral partner in the project.
At the heart of the project is the Pathfinder Ranch, a 235,000-acre cattle ranch located west of Casper near Pathfinder Reservoir that provides significant wildlife habitat for the greater sage-grouse and other native species. Originally purchased for wind energy development, the project was converted to a conservation bank and deeded to the newly created Sweetwater Conservancy with the encouragement of former Governor Dave Freudenthal, who was in the process of building Wyoming’s Core Area sage-grouse strategy. The conservation bank will launch with 55,000 deeded acres. As the demand grows, it could expand to 700,000 acres on other lands owned by the Conservancy.
“The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust is a natural fit for a project that seeks to conserve Wyoming’s working ranches and the wide-open spaces, natural habitat, and rural communities they support,” said Mantha Phillips, Chairman of the Land Trust’s Board of Directors.
Ten days ago, news of Al Wiederspahn’s death was a whiplash which cracked quickly around the Cowboy State. His loss is felt keenly by many of us beyond his family and friends because of the many contributions he made to his community. While a very private man, Al was generous with his time and considerable intellect and those of us fortunate to benefit from his wisdom also gained precious insights into his beliefs, opinions and hopes for the future. A conversation with Al was always a journey, a meandering trip that touched on all manner of related subjects before ending up at the required destination. He was a model for civility; always polite, always proper, always impeccably dressed. While one of the most patient people imaginable, he was not always patient. Al could not stand hypocrisy, stupidity, or dishonesty and he was not shy about expressing his opinions of the unworthy. Very politely. Properly. And while handsomely attired. Al served on the Board of Directors of the Stock Growers Land Trust since 2009, and as Chairman for several of those years. He was passionate about our work and the opportunity we have to conserve not just land, but Wyoming’s “cultural landscape.” He gave a great deal of time and energy to our Land Trust and was a greatly valued mentor, leader, conscience, philanthropist, counsel – and perhaps most importantly, expansive thinker. What follows is something Al wrote for the Land Trust’s newsletter in 2010. Not only does it describe our work at its very best, it also reminds us of what we will miss most about Al.
THE RANCHING CULTURE
It is a privilege for me to serve on the Board of the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust. While much of WSGALT’s work focuses on the conservation of ranch lands, it is perhaps less recognized that by preserving agricultural uses on those lands, WSGALT also furthers the protection of a culture; the culture of ranching.
Culture has been described as the total way of life that characterizes a group of people. By any measure or definition, ranching embodies a singular culture. The ranch culture is comprised of a distinctive set of cultural components, which include animal husbandry, architecture, courtship, cuisine, dance, dress, etiquette, free enterprise, gestures, individual freedom, language, music, values and work ethic. It is primarily through the agency of their culture that people interact with and modify their environment. Ranch culture affects certain attributes of the land, reflecting the way of life of the people who live and work on it. The ranch culture’s relationships with the physical environment create a unique “cultural ecology.”
Almost 2,000 acres of productive ranchland in Crook County will remain in agriculture thanks to a conservation easement on the Wood Ranch donated in part to the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust by landowner Jackie Griffith. The project’s closing on October 22 complements two completed conservation easements in Crook County
held by the Stock Growers Land Trust. The Wood Ranch conservation easement ensures the ranch’s compatibility with agriculture and prevents the ranch from being converted to non-agricultural uses in the future.
The Wood Ranch was founded in 1895 by Jacob Wood and remained in the Wood family for many generations. Jackie Griffith, the current landowner, purchased the land from the Wood family in 2000 and continues to utilize the forage for livestock grazing. At the location of the original homestead, a cabin was erected in Jacob’s honor and is used today as a Pastor Day Retreat, where religious leaders may have a quiet place to reflect, pray and study.