By Sarah Pridgeon
A bill passed at the recent legislative session, authorizing conservation easements for a number of land holdings across the state, has raised questions among Crook County residents. Due to conflict of interest, Senator Ogden Driskill abstained from the vote, prompting a question whether the district was properly represented.
Among the easements discussed in Senate File 42 was a 7943-acre plot adjacent to Devils Tower that is partly owned by the senator and largely owned by Bear Lodge Cattle Company, in which he is a 12 percent shareholder. The easement, according to Senator Driskill, will prevent the land from ever being subdivided and sold in chunks to be developed, preserving it indefinitely as an agricultural zone.
Senator Driskill explained that he received “no comments whatsoever” from constituents regarding the bill. “I generally support conservation easements without comment,” he said, adding that he would have carried forward concerns and opposing views at the session regardless of his ability to vote, had any been raised.
Driskill expressed that his actions were not unethical as the easement was in its planning stages well before he became senator and had been presented to the county commissioners, Town of Hulett, Crook County National Resources District, Devils Tower Natural History Association and other organizations prior to it moving forward. Moreover, the Devils Tower Conservation Easement was also publicized as one of two Wyoming projects singled out last year for the president’s America’s Great Outdoors 50-state report.
The intention of the easement, he said, is to preserve the land in its current unspoiled state, for the benefit of residents and visitors to the area.
According to the bill, the purpose of the project is to restrict use on the land to preclude loss of habitat for wildlife including deer, amphibians and songbirds, maintain agricultural production and secure views of local, regional and national importance.
The value of the land proposed as a conservation easement, according to project sponsors the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust (WSGALT), is established by a qualified appraiser, who ascertains the value of the property both with and without an easement. The difference between the two figures is determined to be the value of the easement and is thus the amount paid to the landowner(s).
Responding to concerns over the $8,903,015 quoted in the bill as total project budget, Senator Driskill explained that the number is an estimate of total value of the ranchland and the final amount that he and Bear Lodge Cattle Company collectively receive will be significantly lower.
Of that total amount, state funding of one million dollars comes from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust while the remainder – which Driskill estimated to be in the range of between two and three million dollars– will come from federal funds and private donations.
The WSGALT describe conservation easements as voluntary agreements that limit the amount and type of development on a property and are attached with the land’s title, regardless of ownership in order to maintain the land’s agricultural capacity and character. Most agricultural easements are designed to preserve those values while allowing the landowner to continue day-to-day agricultural operations. They are typically assigned in perpetuity, assigning the easement to the land’s title, rather than its owner, in order to maintain the desired conservation through future generations.
The landowner continues to retain title to the property, along with all other rights of ownership. An easement can be donated or sold and may be granted during the owner’s lifetime or as a bequest.
According to the WSGALT if the land trust which holds the easement were to go defunct, easement deeds would generally contain provisions which would transfer them to other like-minded nonprofit organizations.
More information regarding the WSGALT and agriculture easements is available at www.wsgalt.org.