Alumni lead the way in Colorado’s conservation efforts
Carmen Farmer and John Peters are project managers for a land trust that has placed more than 650,000 acres into easements, protecting habitat for wildlife and land from development.
Majestic and snow-capped peaks, groves of grand pine trees, red-brown mesas, arid high plains, translucent streams, and an abundance of unique wildlife all serve to define Colorado and make it one of America’s more treasured locations.
Unfortunately, those things attract people, and people, no matter how careful or well-intentioned, tend to create problems that can mar pristine landscapes.
Two Virginia Tech alumni are doing their best to prevent that from happening, dedicating their careers to conserving the natural resources in the Centennial State and ensuring the mile-high vistas last for future generations. They diligently work to strike the ever-tenuous balance between landowners’ needs for revenue with the desire to protect acreage – mountains, valleys, rivers, and creeks – from the effects of commercial and residential development.
“We're trying to keep it from turning into Southern California in many ways,” Carmen Farmer said, “or the greater D.C. metro area.”
Farmer ’03, a Richmond native arguably better known as the former Virginia Tech softball player who competed for the U.S. Olympic team in women’s rugby at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and John Peters ’04, ’14, a Lynchburg, Virginia, native, both work as conservation project managers for Colorado Open Lands. This nonprofit land trust is dedicated to protecting Colorado’s land and water resources. Since its inception in 1981, Colorado Open Lands has protected more than 650,000 acres and more than 350 miles of Colorado’s waterways, according to its website.
As project managers, Farmer and Peters use a tool called a conservation easement to protect these areas. Conservation easements resemble real estate transactions except that landowners don’t give up their land. Instead, they give up some of their property rights in perpetuity in return for monetary benefits from the state and the federal government. Giving up their property rights prevents them from selling valuable land to commercial and residential home developers. Tax credits and deductions – the monetary benefits – make it worth their while in most cases.
This process usually takes around 18 months to complete or longer depending on the complexities of the project or the grant funding involved.
“They’re reducing their property value and getting rid of property rights perpetually,” said Peters, who worked for Virginia Outdoors Foundation for eight years before moving to Colorado. “That impacts whoever buys the property or their kids when they inherit the property. So it's a big decision for landowners to make.
“Certainly, this is something we don't take lightly, and we certainly don't force people into this. It's purely voluntary, but we try to educate folks on this tool, which they can utilize for business purposes. It's a way that agricultural producers can pay off debt or accumulate money to run their operation or even to put grandma into a retirement home, if need be. So there are a lot of financial implications to this, but the end result is we’re protecting the land and limiting development.”
In addition to putting land into easements, those who work for land trusts monitor those easements to ensure landowners follow the terms of the easement. Colorado Open Lands has a portfolio of 686 easements, and the organization’s stewardship department handles the landowner relations, including monitoring and enforcement of each easement.
Farmer, who graduated with a degree in public and urban affairs and political science, and Peters, who graduated with a degree in environmental policy and planning and later earned a master’s degree in natural resources from the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability, find themselves incredibly busy as more and more landowners seek the services of Colorado Open Lands for a variety of reasons. Some want to preserve wildlife habitat, while others want the financial benefits. Many simply want to protect their way of life – a lifestyle of solitude in a picturesque environment.
Such things are important to Coloradans, who witnessed a spike in interest for that lifestyle during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more people working remotely and wishing to do so in places with a slower pace of life. As a result, Colorado voters approved 50 conservation funding measures – mostly tax hikes – this past November, according to The Colorado Sun, an online news outlet. Those measures created approximately $3.7 billion to be used for measure to mitigate climate change, open spaces, and parks for the next two decades.
“We saw an increase in people moving out of cities [during the pandemic], trying to get more space, rethinking life, and remote work allows you to kind of live anywhere,” said Farmer, who worked for a private practice after earning her law degree from the University of Maryland and later spent four years with Eastern Shore Land Conservancy in Maryland before moving to Colorado. “And so, there was a lot of property turnover, a lot of inquiry about developing property, and then as a result, also a lot of interest in trying to protect property.”
Tax incentives also have played a huge role in the increased interest in conservation easements in Colorado. Fourteen states offer a conservation easement tax credit to landowners who put their property into an easement, including Colorado, and coincidentally, Virginia. Of these, five states, including Colorado and Virginia, take this incentive a step farther, offering landowners the opportunity to sell the credit to someone – specifically a wealthy person or couple – who then can use it to reduce any tax burdens. This generates cash for the easement landowner.
“The monetary incentives are really the best that they've ever been for land conservation,” Peters said. “I think folks are even more interested because real estate prices have gone up so much and their compensation [from the incentives] is directly correlated to development pressure and land prices.
“There are folks that do it [put their land into an easement] purely for the financial benefit. They may acquire a specific piece of land and want to conserve it just to get a federal write-off. So the end result is that we're conserving land, and we don't question people's intent. We don't push back on people's intent, and certainly, we're interested in people's intent, but we evaluate each easement that we do based on the same metrics and standards that we would for any project.”
Farmer and Peters have worked on several exciting projects over the past few years that protected land and preserved habitat for threatened species. Peters, who just closed an easement on an 18,000-acre ranch, expressed an affinity for a specific project in southwest Colorado in which a sheep-herding couple placed their nearly 10,000-acre ranch about 30 minutes from Telluride, a tourist magnet, into an easement.
The project required writing grants for funding and tapping into other revenue streams because of the size of the ranch, and more importantly, its proximity to popular Telluride, where land prices continue to skyrocket. Yet Peters shepherded the project to the finish line, preserving mountain landscapes, agricultural land, and habitat for the greater sage grouse, a species of concern among wildlife biologists with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the state of Colorado.
“It just checked all our boxes,” Peters said of the project. “And the fact that it was with this particular family made it that much more special because it's very easy to get lost in the day-to-day transactional mode of easements and working with attorneys and title companies and appraisers. It’s a long process, and you’re waiting on reports and reviews, and speed bumps occur and cause delays, but it was nice to really just kind of take a step back and be like, ‘This was worth it.’ This was worth navigating this complicated process, seeing this family at closing.”
Not every project is of this scope and magnitude. Actually, many easement proposals concern farms of around 100 or fewer acres. Yet the importance for landowners of these smaller properties ranks the same as those who own large ranches. Their land is just as important to them.
“My favorite projects are the ones with the family farmers, honestly,” Farmer said. “Those family farms are the ones that really resonate with me. It goes beyond just being a landscape. It's a story. You hear about that personal connection to the land for that particular family, and that's pretty interesting to me.
“It’s meaningful to me when I can talk to a family and understand that that farm is going to remain a farm in the future. It's not going to be turned into a Walmart. It's not going to be developed into 100 houses. It's going to be a productive farm, and potentially stay in that family for future generations.”
Farmer and Peters expect continued interest in conservation easements going forward, particularly as long the current monetary incentives and political policies remain in place. That figures to be the case. Coloradans place a premium on protecting lands and waterways, and their voting habits proved that this past November.
And that’s great news for Farmer and Peters, who have developed a passion for conservation in Colorado and helping people.
“It’s kind of a win-win situation, and sort of these public good benefits are a result of that,” Peters said. “So it’s really a lot of different wins where you're helping the landowner, but you're also doing something for the public good, long term.”
Farmer echoed similar sentiments.
“When I was in private practice, there just wasn't a meaning behind the work,” she said. “And in this land trust community, when I drive by a property that I've protected, that feeling is just fantastic.
“I don't see myself doing anything else. I mean, who knows? Maybe I'll end up in a different place. Maybe I'll come back to Virginia one day, but I'd still want to do this kind of work.”