State Owned Lands: Funding Education

Morrison Creek State Trust Lands sign

I recently listed the T&T Ranch south of Hayden. It shares a long boundary with a 1,368 acre parcel of land owned by the State of Colorado.  Having been a lessee of a State section for my cattle operation, I knew there would be restrictions so I took the time to dig a little deeper.  But first a little background: our forefathers strongly believed that a well-educated public would ensure that basic freedoms of religion, assembly, press, due process of law and trial by jury would be understood and exercised.  Knowing that many of the newly formed (and to be formed) states lacked a tax base, they established that Section 16 (and section 36 in Colorado) would belong to the State. When sections 16 or 36 were already homesteaded, granted to the railroad or reserved by the United States, states were allowed to select in lieu lands.  Regardless of the location, the State could use those lands to produce income to support education.  The practice is still alive and well today and it is relatively common to see Sections 16 and 36 belong to the State.   Many, but not all, of the sections have a public-use component. The State Trust Land area that borders T & T Ranch lies in several non 16/36 sections and is completely under private lease. Except for the public shooting range near the county road to the west, no public assess is allowed. The nearby Sage Creek State Trust Land (located a couple of miles to the south) allows for archery deer and elk season and for dusky grouse and rabbit hunting from opening day of archery through May 31. It has two parking areas and is limited to non-motorized access for hunting, fishing and watchable wildlife activity from sunrise to sunset.  The Colorado Parks and Wildlife website is a great resource for those State lands that are open to the public.


Guest Ranches: It’s not just about the money….

Home Ranch campfire music and guests

If you’ve been lucky enough to experience a stay at a guest ranch, you’re familiar with the genuine hospitality, the relaxed surroundings and the inspiring outdoor excursions.  Perhaps it’s the structured focus of ranch life that allows you to leave everything behind for a few days, or maybe it’s reconnecting with family and friends, or with nature when the Milky Way is revealed on a clear night.  Maybe it’s just about life and balance and simplicity.  The feelings discovered during a great stay at a great resort are often life changing.

I am often asked what draws people to establish or purchase a guest ranch.  I’ve learned the biggest draw falls in to the intangible realm. Many people who own guest ranches have been on the guest side of the equation.  Owning one means they can share it with others; they can impact lives much in the same way theirs have been impacted.  They can put their own personal brand on the operation and continue the tradition of hospitality and serving others in a distinctive setting.

Most guest ranches (like most ranches in general) are purchased to satisfy something more than an investment portfolio.  However, because guest ranches come equipped with the permission to operate on a commercial basis and generate cash flow, there is opportunity.  Opportunity to make great sense on paper and opportunity to get deep satisfaction that can only come from this kind of non-traditional investment. 


Ag and Resort balance in Routt County

Horse sculpture in Routt County shows balance of ag and resort industry

Having a perspective from both agriculture and real estate, I often notice the successful and interesting balance agricultural producers, absentee property owners and the resort industry in Routt County have established.  Steamboat Springs has maintained and protected its deep agricultural roots, making it unique among many other Colorado ski resorts. The powder is legendary and Steamboat is one of the top destination resorts in the world. The friendly atmosphere and true western heritage endear visitors, sometimes converting them in to residents.  As residents, they often become a part of the local agricultural scene as new producers or as owners who lease their land to existing producers. 

Despite land prices that can’t reasonably be supported by agricultural production alone, crop and livestock sales still contribute significantly to Routt County’s economy. These sectors supply more than $35M annually to the local economy.  For those involved in farming and ranching, the connection to the land and livestock and working in the great outdoors is an intangible reward that can’t be measured or quantified. However, the importance of agriculture and the scenic vistas to the citizens can be measured:  Routt County voters on two occasions have approved initiatives that set aside tax dollars to purchase development rights.  The efforts of the Steamboat-based Yampa Valley Land Trust and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust combined with landowner participation have protected tens of thousands of acres in the area Yampa Valley from large scale development.  These wide  open spaces are ideally suited for raising livestock and hay; fortunately there are plenty of willing and capable families and landowners here who sustain the agricultural traditions.  

Through the hard work and dedication of the agricultural producer, the local land owners and various organizations dedicated to farming, ranching and sustainable food production, Routt County is a true model of how recreation and agriculture have found the perfect balance to enhance a community.


Whiskey’s for Drinkin’….

Elk River pool and riffle with cottonwood trees on the banks of the river

….and water’s for fightin’! This is an adage straight out of the Old West that has held true for generations. As one of the major sources of water in the entire West, fighting over Colorado’s water in the early 1900’s extended across state lines. An agreement was reached among seven states in 1922 that provided an average of 7.5 million acre feet of water to be delivered for use to California, Arizona, Nevada and parts of New Mexico and Utah.  The remaining water could be used in Colorado, Wyoming, and parts of New Mexico and Utah.  Fighting over water within the state lines has resulted in a variety of arrangements like trans-basin diversions where water is shuttled out of its natural basin to another via man-made efforts. The Western Slope of the state has about 80% of the water while the Eastern Slope of the state has about 90% of the population.  On a local level, neighbors whose water comes from a common source sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of the proverbial fence when water is scarce.  Colorado’s solution to these water wars is based on the “prior appropriation” doctrine which basically states the first person to put the water to beneficial use has the right to use all of that water before the next appropriator can use any.  To exercise that right, the user must obtain a decree for the water, which is considered a separate property right in Colorado.  This system has provided a framework for managing a scarce resource with an increasingly unpredictable supply.  Landowners are well served to understand the basics of water law; it can be the difference between ending up in court while a judge decides how water should be allocated and sipping a glass of whiskey on the porch with a neighbor.


Fencing: To Barb or not to Barb?

While showing one of my ranch listings recently, the topic of conversation in the Ranger was materials used for the perimeter fence.  The buyer wanted to know how to mitigate the barbed wire fence to prevent one of her self-described less-than-pasture-wise horses from getting tangled up in the fence.  Colorado is a “fence out” state; generally speaking (with some exceptions), it is the landowner’s responsibility to fence unwanted livestock out of the property. The most effective way to keep cattle out is with a 4-strand barbed wire fence—which is not always ideal for all types of livestock.  Electric fence is also effective but less reliable when the power source is solar and/or elk and deer run through it.  The tried and true method to keep cattle where they are (or aren’t) supposed to be is with a barbed wire fence. Adjoining landowners who keep horses that may injure themselves in the fence can deter them from the fence line with a strand of electric fence or another parallel fence with smooth wire. 


Sagebrush Thoughts

While I attended a class on weeds over the last several weeks, the instructor touched on a question I often hear from buyers or new owners of acreage: Can I plow up the sagebrush and replace it with grass? The simple answer may seem to be to cultivate the ground, but if you do that to permanent pasture or rangeland, consider a few thoughts. To cultivate the ground requires specific equipment such as a plow, large disk, and a tractor big enough to handle them. A large area of bare soil is exposed to erosion and invasion by weeds and if adverse environmental conditions exist (drought) the whole process may need to be repeated. Additionally, the seed itself can be expensive so it is certainly an investment in both time and money. You can check with the Routt County Extension office and the NRCS (Soil Conservation) for more information.


Range Beef Cow Symposium – Cheyenne, WY

I recently attended a three day Range Beef Cow Symposium in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was loaded with up-to-the minute research findings and data pertinent to the cattle industry. While my husband soaked in all of the practical applications to our high mountain cattle herd, I found the legislative and advocacy presentations applicable to both my ranching profession and my ranch brokerage profession. Being a new member of the National RLI legislative committee, I’ll share some of my key takeaways that may help farm and ranch brokers when they sit across the table from their clients.

Legislative takeaways:

*The estate planning landscape has changed-in a good way-at least for the next 8 years. The estate tax exemption has doubled to roughly $11M for an individual and $22M for a couple. This new exemption certainly affects succession planning and how we as ranch brokers help farmers and ranchers achieve their acquisition, disposition and transition goals.

*1031-exchange provisions survived the proposed overall chopping block but didn’t come away unchanged. Most notable to us is that real estate (which generally appreciates) and buildings are still allowed while breeding livestock and some equipment (which generally don’t appreciate) are no longer allowed.

*The new tax law increases the deduction for breeding stock, race horses, and equipment to 100% for property placed in service after September 2017. The ability to expense breeding cattle could be significant for buyers who purchase a ranch that is being sold with livestock.

Advocacy takeaways:

*WOTUS (Waters of the US) is a topic I’ve followed for years; its implementation would have had far reaching effects and could have hugely affected me and my ranching neighbors. On January 22, the US Supreme Court unanimously decided to give federal district courts jurisdiction over WOTUS. This important decision shifts the focus away from federal regulation and is a tremendous victory for water users who have challenged the rule in court. Also, on January 31 the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers officially delayed application of the 2015 WOTUS ruling for two years. This will give the agencies time to provide long-term regulatory certainty about which waters are subject to federal regulation or to possibly repeal it altogether.

*98% of consumers have no connection with production agriculture. They don’t know what we do on a daily basis and many consumers are exposed to one-sided information. Although many ranch brokers don’t have to get up at 2 a.m. for the middle-of-the-night calving check, they are directly involved in agriculture because they’re the ones helping farmers and ranchers trade in and out of the land. Anytime the benefits of agriculture can be shared by those involved in the industry, we tip the scales back toward the realities of feeding large populations with limited resources and maintaining the scenic, open landscapes that characterize rural America.

The agriculture industry like the real estate industry is constantly changing. New rules affect both industries and we can be better brokers when we are aware of the changes affecting the lives and businesses of many of our clients.

Christy Belton owns Ranch & Resort Realty in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She is also a rancher and with her husband operates a commercial cattle and hay business in the Elk River Valley and on the adjoining Routt National Forest.


Conservation Easements

A conservation easement can be a useful tool to accomplish a variety of landowner objectives. One of the primary reasons owners place an easement on their property is to receive a direct cash payment, often in combination with state tax credits and a federal tax deduction. The benefit to the owner is they retain ownership and use of their entire parcel and “sell” some or all of their ability to develop the land. The public benefits because the limited development translates into scenic vistas and reduced interruption to open landscapes.

Properties encumbered by conservation easements sometimes experience a longer sales effort and attract a smaller pool of buyers. Recent sales of properties encumbered by conservation easements suggest this trend to be slowing as conserved properties are becoming more commonplace. The encumbrance on the property results in a diminution of value which can also benefit the landowner by lowering the value of the estate.

There are several organizations that are qualified to hold conservation easements and each trust is as unique and distinct as each conservation easement. Time and money spent on the front end discussing how to best fit a conservation easement to your land, your income and your future plans will be well spent.


Ranching – A Way of Life

It’s difficult to describe all of the best things about owning a ranch-maybe it’s the legacy you leave, maybe it’s the time you spend with family working on the land, perhaps it’s a great tax write off or maybe it’s simply a matter of pride of ownership. For me, it’s the little things. It’s getting up in the morning as the sun rises over the mountains and heading outside—protected by several warm layers—to feed my cows. I love the sounds of the sleigh bells tapping against the work horses and the runners on the feed sled cutting through the snow. As winter gives way to spring, the baby calves running and bucking through the field-tails raised up like a flag-remind me of the optimism of new life. A new hay crop grows at a pace I can almost see; the long days of summer and the fertile river-valley soils combine forces to raise acres and acres of brilliant green native timothy and brome grass. It’s the time spent in the tractor breathing in the smell of the fresh cut hay and watching the hawks on a hay bale intently waiting for a confused, doomed rodent to appear. Some of the little things have turned out to be not-so-little. Raising a child on a ranch, taking in young people and helping them to learn about hard work and respect for animals, and sharing our experiences with others certainly rank among the best things about having a ranch. For great shots and videos of some of the best things about owning a Colorado ranch, follow me on Instagram at @christybelton.