25 years ago, the California Rangeland Trust was born out of need— a need to keep ranchers on the land and a need to keep working lands productive in California.
The year was 1997— land prices were rising, taxes were becoming more burdensome, and the threat of development loomed over California’s rangelands. Feeling the pressures, some ranchers got out of the business altogether, while others moved across state lines to continue their operations. It seemed like the sustainability of California’s ranching industry was in jeopardy.
Matt Echeverria, California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) President at the time, along with his fellow board members, felt the struggles the ranching industry was facing and feared that losing California’s cattle producers would in turn put the state at a loss in terms of food production and environmental stewardship.
“There was a mass exodus that we were seeing in the ranching industry,” Echeverria stated. “It was a topic of the West, and we wanted our ranchers to be able to have a viable way to keep their home country and fend off development.”
With urban sprawl threatening the future, new land trusts were being formed across the United States, but particularly in California. Using a tool calleda “conservation easement,” they sought to partner with private landowners to conserve open space for the benefit of humans and wildlife alike.
Ranchers were being approached by these groups to conserve their properties. While most were well-meaning, few had practical knowledge of how agricultural businesses operated. Without a clear understanding of how easements worked or who these conservation groups were, producers became apprehensive and worried that their private property rights could be affected in the future. At the same time, development was still lurking around the corner, and easements offered alternative sources of income that could help ranches remain viable.
Idea for a Rancher-led Land Trust is Born
The ranching community needed a group they trusted to provide objective information, offer creative conservation solutions, and hold conservation easements. So, a group of CCA leaders decided to take fate into their own hands and form a rancher-led land trust. It would be an organization by ranchers, for ranchers, saving rangeland for all Californians.
After networking and learning from groups like the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association who had created the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT) a few years earlier, CCA determined there was enough traction to bring this proposal forward for a vote by its membership.
At the annual CCA Convention in December of 1997, the resolution was made by Jerry Hempstead, First Vice President of CCA, to create a committee of individuals to research and form a 501(c)3, later to be known as the California Rangeland Trust.
“It was a real close vote to pass the resolution. Ranchers feared that it would take away their property rights,” Hempstead recounted. “But once we explained that this was going to keep land in private enterprise, there was more of an acceptance.” Ultimately, the resolution passed, and that is when the real work began.
Getting Off the Ground
Due to his legal knowledge and ranching background, Steve Sinton was asked to lead the charge. Although he was a lawyer, creating a novel land trust was new territory.
“For me, it didn’t start out to be such an immense undertaking. I knew virtually nothing about the laws and policies related to conservation easements and had no inkling of the personal politics that affect the funding of our efforts to conserve rangeland in California,” said Sinton. “I was also unaware of my impending passion and commitment to what became the California Rangeland Trust and that this enthusiasm would be shared by so many smart, capable, and dedicated people.”
By mid-1998, CCA had appointed the first Board of Directors to govern the new organization. It included: Jack Hanson, Joe Russ, Cindy Noble, Darrel Sweet, Nita Vail, Greg Harlan, Carson Scheller, and Glenn Drown, with Sinton serving as chairman. Each of these individuals had direct ties to ranching and represented different zones covering the state, making this board truly unique.
“We had this rancher-led board that made us successful amongst our peers,” Hanson explained. “I think the skepticism that came from ranchers towards the other organizations is that they didn’t understand or appreciate what it takes for a ranching business to endure.”
Within the first year, the group outlined goals and laid a solid foundation. They sought to provide real tools, common vision, and collaborative opportunities for ranchers.
“This board was a trailblazing board,” reflected Vail. “This group of individuals was willing to problem solve and take risks to do this right because it is what they had to do in their everyday operations.”
By the end of that first year, the demand for easements was greater than anyone could have anticipated, prompting the Rangeland Trust to bring on its first staff members. Dan Macon was hired as the first executive director, Chris Leininger as the administrative coordinator, and Andy Mills as the field staff member. Each of these individuals worked hard, along with the board, to get the word out and establish a sense of validity for the organization.
Credibility was one of the greatest challenges the organization faced. It presented itself as a classic chicken and egg situation: to build credibility, funding was needed, but funding required established credibility.
The first big break came when current U.S. Representative, John Garamendi, and his wife, Patricia, donated a conservation easement on their Calaveras County ranch. “Starting with our first easement, which was the Touch the Earth Ranch with the Garamendis, was sort of an icebreaker, and once that went through, the floodgates started to open,” Mills recounted.
Suddenly, there was a gaining interest in conservation easements from ranchers all over the state, which meant the organization needed additional bandwidth. In 2001, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation awarded a two-year capacity-building grant to assist in meeting this demand. With Macon ready to step down, the grant afforded the Trust the ability to bring on a new leader, which it found in Nita Vail.
Having experienced personal heartache after losing her family’s intergenerational ranch, she set out on a mission to help others avoid similar fates. In doing so, she helped take the Rangeland Trust to unforeseen heights.
Historically, there has long been a division between agricultural and environmental interests. Vail recalled when she and a group of fellow Rangeland Trust members attended a Land Trust Alliance Rally (a national convention that brings together land trusts of all kinds) in the early 2000s. While standing in a coffee shop line dressed in denim jeans, leather boots, and cowboy hats, the group overheard a person behind them scoff: “What are cowboys doing at a conservation convention? What an oxymoron!”
The Rangeland Trust spent many years countering stereotypes and working to establish itself as a bridge organization between ranchers and environmentalists. It developed relationships with government agency partners, worked to generate a broad base of philanthropic support, educated people from all walks of life on the public benefits of rangelands, and most importantly, it let the conservation impact of the ranching community speak for itself.
To strengthen the effectiveness of its advocacy efforts, the Rangeland Trust joined forces in 2004 with four other state-wide agricultural land trusts to form an alliance. Known today as the Partnership of Rangeland Trusts (PORT), the coalition now has 9 members which have collectively conserved nearly three million acres across the U.S.
The Trust also went on to gain national recognition in 2005 when it completed its largest and most challenging project of all time. In partnership with the Hearst Corporation and American Land Conservancy, it conserved 80,000 acres of the Hearst Ranch in San Simeon, California. Forever protecting 128 square miles of rangeland, including 18 miles of coastline along California’s scenic Highway One, this landmark conservation agreement went on to serve as a model for rangeland conservation around the country.
In 2010, the organization hit another milestone, gaining accreditation through the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. Resulting largely from the hard work of Ben Higgins, who then served as COO, accreditation signified the Rangeland Trust’s status as a top-notch entity upholding the highest ethical standards and practices. The Rangeland Trust was earning respect from environmental and ranching groups alike.
In the decade that followed, the Rangeland Trust worked to garner support from and provide education to a broader audience. In 2015, it launched a program to bring inner-city youth and their families onto the land to learn about agriculture. It also embarked on a journey in 2018, spearheaded by volunteers of the Rangeland Trust Legacy Council, to raise private funds to conserve the Rock Front Ranch in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Completion of the effort signified the first time in which 100 percent funding for conservation was raised through private, community support.
By the end of its first 20 years, the Rangeland Trust had accomplished more than anyone had initially dreamed possible. It had worked with differing groups to establish common ground, and in doing so, it became the largest statewide land trust in California, having conserved over 320,000 acres of pristine rangeland for the benefit of all Californians.
Capitalizing on Success
In April of 2020, longtime COO Michael Delbar took the reins as CEO, filling the boots of Nita Vail. Today, the Trust continues to capitalize on past successes to inspire forward momentum and move the needle in agricultural land conservation.
Helping ranchers achieve their dreams of conservation for the benefit of all remains the Rangeland Trust’s top priority. In recent years, the organization has developed relationships with mitigators seeking to offset habitat impacts and has refined its strategic grant writing processes to garner needed conservation funding through government agency programs. Additionally, it has sought private support from local communities to fund specific projects. Since completion of the Rock Front Ranch
easement, the organization has raised private dollars to support other projects, including Bloom Ranch in Tuolumne County, Spanish Ranch in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, and Bufford Ranch in Kern County.
Furthermore, by elevating rangeland concerns amongst policymakers, the Rangeland Trust has been able to promote legislative discourse about the need for resources to protect private land. In 2020, the organization rolled out its Ecosystem Services Study, which shows that land conserved by the Trust provides nearly $1.5 billion in ecosystem services annually to the people of California. Backed with credible, science-driven data, recent outreach efforts have helped influence the allocation of needed state dollars to support working lands conservation, which has been a huge win for the land, people, and wildlife of California.
“Just as the founders intended, we remain committed to a collaborative, science-based approach to ranch conservation,” said Delbar. “We are grateful for this wonderful community of volunteers, landowners, and donors who are helping to increase general understanding and attract new and important allies to the cause of protecting the state’s dwindling rangelands as they continue to face a host of economic, environmental, and regulatory hurdles.”
Ensuring a Brighter Future
The ranching way of life is something worth fighting for. That is why 25 years ago, the Rangeland Trust founders banded together to help give ranchers a fighting chance against the outside factors that were stacking up against them. Their unwavering passion for the land and its bounty led to the creation of a diverse community bound by a shared tenacity to keep the Golden State’s working lands productive forever.
To date, the Rangeland Trust community has helped 84 ranching families forever conserve over 371,000 acres of rangeland. This was made possible by the efforts of many, including the ranchers who had the foresight to form the organization, the founding board who got the organization off the ground, the staff and volunteers who demonstrated deep dedication to further the mission, the landowners who made the admirable decision to conserve, and the donors and funders who made it all possible.
While there is certainly more work to be done, Californians can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that there will always be places available for local food to be grown, air to be cleansed, freshwater to flow, wildlife to roam, and spectacular viewsheds to be admired. The future is a little brighter because of what has been conserved so far. 25 years in and the California Rangeland Trust is just getting started.