Researchers: ranchettes changing face of West

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) Farms and ranches played a big part in settling the West. A new study identifies ranchettes as helping fuel the population boom in today's West.

The three-year study titled "Western Futures" predicts Colorado's population will be 6.2 million by 2050. The state's population was 4.3 million in the 2000 census.

A new trend behind the growth is the ranchette, say researchers Bill Travis of the University of Colorado at Boulder and David Theobold of Colorado State University.

Ranchettes are tracts of 35 acres or more and are being carved from large ranches and farms of the past in Colorado and throughout the west, according to the study. They're usually bought by people fleeing city life.

The researchers, who studied 11 Western states, have created a new term to describe the phenomenon.

"Were calling them the Exurbs or Exurbia," Travis said. "We have suburbs. We have cities. Now we have Exurbs. They're everywhere. It's the way of the future, and its going to have a big influence on our landscape, on our wildlife, on habitats, along river corridors."

The researchers said they were surprised at how fast ranchettes are developing in areas where private property sits next to national forests on the Western Slope.

In 1960, just 1 million acres in Colorado were subdivided for ranch homes, according to the study. The total jumped to 2.7 million acres in 1990. The study predicts more than 4 million acres will be sliced into ranchettes by 2020.

Ranchettes are the result of farmers subdividing their land into 35-acre tracts or greater with little, if any, oversight from local counties. A 1977 state law allowed people to bypass the normal subdivision rules when developing tracts 35 acres or more.

The intent was to give farmers and ranchers the right to subdivide their land and sell to anyone they want.

"To the ... farmer, it cuts both ways," said Dan Williams, 54, a former sheep and cattle rancher from Eagle County who now lobbies for the Colorado Cattleman's Association. "He hates to see his neighbors ranch being sold to somebody who doesn't have a clue about farming. But, by the same token, it drives up his property values and makes his farm worth more."

Colorado Farm Bureau lobbyist Jeani Frickey called the law "a double-edged sword."

"We see it as a valuable tool for farmers who want to sell off a part of their property," Frickey said. "But it eats up farmland and ranchland really quickly. Its too big an area for horses, and yet its too small to serve any real kind of agricultural use."

John Fielder, a nature photographer and proponent of growth controls, had harsher words for the decades-old law. "The state is being ranchetted to death," he said.

And if the trend doesn't stop, Fielder predicts that Denver will "turn into nothing better than a Los Angeles or an Atlanta."

It is more than an issue of sprawl, he said.

"I see us losing our ranching and farming and open space heritage," said Fielder.

He wants to see the law amended to make anything under 160 acres subject to regulation.

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