Energy Blend: Moffat County looks to balance conservation easements and energy development | CraigDailyPress.com

Energy Blend: Moffat County looks to balance conservation easements and energy development

As interest grows in new conservation easements on private land in Moffat County — in part, to protect sage grouse habitat — county commissioners are trying to ensure the easements don't create unnecessary snags for future energy development.

Conservation easements can be a win-win for landowners and those looking to protect agricultural and natural landscapes. But as more conservation dollars flow into Moffat County, particularly to protect sage grouse habitat, Moffat County commissioners are trying to ensure easements don't create unnecessary complications for future energy development.

In late 2016, commissioners approved an amended resolution outlining criteria for new conservation easements that require county support. The resolution requests at least 90 days of lead time to allow the county to research and address issues related to proposed easements and seeks to protect access to and use of county-owned minerals.

As of 2016, a total of 39,870 acres of private land in Moffat County were protected under conservation easements, according to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program.

"Money's being put at unprecedented rates in this county into conservation easements," said Moffat County Director of Natural Resources Jeff Comstock.

Funding for two additional easements was announced in December 2016, totaling more than $650,000, to protect the 7,311-acre Baker's Peak Ranch in north Moffat County and the 165-acre Ross Ranch along the Yampa River east of Craig.

In 2014, Colorado Cattleman's Agricultural Land Trust partnered with several organizations to lock 16,000 acres of Cross Mountain Ranch into a conservation easement for a price of $5.6 million paid to the landowner. Protecting sage grouse habitat was the main purpose.

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The county's resolution explicitly states its support for landowners’ right to do with their land what they will, but it also alludes to issues caused by previous easements.

"Moffat County is aware that existing conservation easements have singularly diverted power transmission lines and natural gas pipelines from existing corridors," the resolution reads. "When decades of planning and zoning have encouraged corridors for such ground disturbance, conservation easements are creating a divergent web of surface disturbance, often against the interest of both landowners and Moffat County and to the detriment of the broader landscape."

The resolution also articulates the county's desire for easements to recognize and protect its estimated 60,000 acres of mineral rights, which sometimes lie beneath private land in what's known as a split estate. Commissioners want the "right to explore, extract and transport such minerals … over and under existing easements," according to the resolution.

Despite the challenges, a report published by Colorado State University and CNHP concluded the public receives $4 to $12 worth of economic benefit for each $1 of public money invested. State money has conserved nearly 1.5 million acres in Colorado via conservation easements, the report said.

"These are willing landowners doing it," said Michael Meneffee, with CNHP. "That's the kind of conservation I love to see, and, to me, its more successful longterm, (because these are) people that want to do this."

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.