County's oldest family ranch now protectedKatie Bagby Special to Feather Publishing
A seventh generation of Pearces will be able to work their family ranch thanks to a recent conservation easement the family signed with the Feather River Land Trust. Photo by Susy Pearce
Susy Pearce breathes a sigh of relief, knowing that she has protected the once-imperiled Pearce Family Ranch for her sons, Cody (23) and Clancy (19). On Dec. 27, 2010, Pearce signed a conservation easement with the Feather River Land Trust, protecting the 318-acre ranch from subdivision and keeping the ranch intact for ranching and wildlife habitat.
The boys’ great-great-great-grandfather, John Hardgrave, bought the ranch just north of the town of Taylorsville from Job Taylor in 1873. The ranch has been owned and managed by the Hardgrave/Pearce family for six generations, making it what is believed to be the oldest family-owned working cattle ranch in Plumas County.
Ranching has always been a financially challenging venture, and in recent decades many family-owned ranches have been lost to financial troubles, estate tax issues, internal family struggles and aging owners whose children may not wish, or be able, to continue the family business.
Prior to the conservation easement tool, ranchers who needed capital often had to subdivide and sell off a portion of their property or be forced to sell the entire ranch. Now, by selling some of their development rights through a conservation easement, landowners like Susy Pearce are able to take some of the equity out of the property and use it to reinvest back into their ranching operation or to take care of other financial needs.
“To be honest, I was desperate to save the ranch for my kids,” says Pearce. “This was one way to protect it from being sold off and to pass it on to the boys. I mean, how do you give up something that’s been in the family for six generations?”
A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a willing landowner and a land trust that protects a land’s conservation value by permanently limiting its uses. The rights to subdivide and develop a property are limited or sometimes extinguished by the conservation easement, as are other potentially harmful rights, such as the right to conduct large-scale mining.
Owners who enter into conservation easements can receive a combination of tax benefits or direct compensation for the development rights limited by the easement.
Conservation easements can be tailored to protect important wildlife habitat, scenic vistas, agricultural land and a land’s rural character, while also allowing the landowner to continue working the land.
The recent conservation easement will enable Susy Pearce and her sons to continue ranching and stewarding the land. And should they one day decide to sell the property, the conservation easement will be part of the property’s title in perpetuity, ensuring that the land’s scenic value and important habitat will be protected into the future.
Generally, conservation easements do not allow public access to the property unless specifically permitted by the landowner. In this case, the Pearce Family Ranch won’t be open to the public, but the Pearces are generously making the property available for educational use by local teachers and schoolchildren.
In addition to its historic importance, the Pearce Family Ranch is an important landscape to conserve because of its riparian, wetland and meadow habitats. A healthy, functioning riparian area and associated meadowlands provide benefits such as fish and wildlife habitat, erosion control, forage for wildlife and livestock, late-season streamflow and water quality. Indian Creek winds through the Pearce Family Ranch, providing extensive habitat for a variety of species including native fish, nesting sandhill cranes, mountain beaver, bald eagles and many species of songbirds.
The conservation easement, which is the first-ever in Indian Valley, is not without controversy. Susy knows that some of her neighbors are unsure of how the easement will affect them, and they are watching to see how it goes. “But I think it is going to be really great,” Pearce says. “I’m hoping to show that there can be balance between conservation and ranching. Ranchers have always been stewards of the land, and habitat has always been a foundation. Everything we do is for stewardship of the land and the animals we produce. I want to show that it can work for everybody and save the traditions and ways of the valley, like ranching.”
What happens in the future?
Conservation easements work best when landowners want to continue to own and manage their property — the easement becomes part of the property title in perpetuity and the land trust ensures that current and future owners honor the terms of the easement. The landowner continues to own the land that is subject to the conservation easement, while the land trust is charged with monitoring the property to make sure its resources are being protected and the terms of the easement are being followed. The landowner continues to pay property taxes on the property — conservation easements do not trigger a property tax reassessment.
Under a conservation easement, the property can be sold, leased or kept in agricultural production and bequeathed to heirs.
Land conservation, at its root, is about ensuring a positive future for current and future generations. For ranchers like Susy Pearce and her sons, a conservation easement ensures that the Hardgrave/Pearce family can remain on the land, ranching and stewarding it long into the future.
The Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the Northern Sierra Partnership contributed $544,300 toward the $570,000 easement. In the crucial final weeks, our generous local community and donors, with matching funds from the Morgan Family Foundation, raised the final $25,700 needed to complete the purchase and protect the ranch forever.
Katie Bagby is a development associate for the Feather River Land Trust.