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Ranchers want community to look at options for saving ag land and open space

by Sharon Carter

When rancher Charlie Hone thinks about the changes he’s already seen in the Carson Valley over the past 20 years, he wonders if Emily, his 2-week-old daughter, will grow up in an area rich with verdant fields and pastures or a valley of strip malls and parking lots.

Hone’s Mottsville Lane purebred operation raising and selling Angus and Gelbvieh (a German breed) bulls sits in an area already dotted with new, upscale custom homes. Without some active consideration for farmers and ranchers, Hone sees his way of life disappearing from the area.

“Basically, I believe agriculture and the green open space in the Valley should be preserved and if there’s a way it can be done, I’m all for it,” Hone said Monday.

Hone, along with Gardnerville rancher James Settelmeyer and Genoa-area rancher Jerry Whitmire, are point men for a coalition of ranchers and farmers who make up the Carson Valley Conservation District. The CVCD, along with the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Authority and the Sonoran Institute, is a sponsor of Saturday’s free agriculture and open space preservation workshop.

n Conditions coming to a head. Hone says the old maxim that most ranchers and farmers are “land rich and cash poor” is becoming very evident in the Carson Valley as more people and businesses move in.

The influx drives up property values which makes it difficult for pure agricultural operations to expand and thrive.

Add to the mix the federal tax structure, which calculates inheritance taxes on the basis of what land can be used for rather than what its actual use is, and experts say agriculture as we know it in the Carson Valley could be virtually eliminated within the next decade.

“We’re looking at everything (at the workshop), but what I’d hope to see is a locally-led initiative,” Hone said. “We like to see people put in programs state-wide (like the Rural Lands Initiative), but as a Carson Valley rancher, I’d prefer something that comes from the community. Some of us don’t want to have to go to the federal government (for help) because nine times out of 10 with them, there are strings attached.”

Hone said programs that would allow owners of ag lands to move or sell development rights from their properties and others that would adjust the tax structure to accommodate agriculture are viable options which could help keep ranching alive.

Jerry Whitmire, who has raised his purebred Beefmaster cattle at the “Old Kidman Place” behind Walley’s Hot Springs for the past 15 years, hopes a whole new concept of preservation will grow from Saturday’s workshop.

He agrees with Charlie Hone’s assessment that the ag preservation movement is in its infancy and the focus of the meeting Saturday will be to look at different options and learn what other people have done and what can work here.

n Developing the tools. “We can look at zoning variances that would let ranches expand their interests, at local funding mechanisms, at the Rural Lands Initiative’s conservation easements and estate planning, put the information we learn from the Sonoran Institute together with it and come out with a viable alternative,” Whitmire said Tuesday.

Most ranchers are very aware of conservation issues and needs, but because of his ranch’s location at the base of the Sierra and the wetlands it includes, Whitmire’s concerns for his business are compounded by prospects of losing ranches as wildlife corridors – the passages through which wildlife migrate in developed areas.

Whitmire also says he believes the time frame to stop development on agricultural lands is short.

“The most scenic parts of the Valley are truly our ranches – they are the reason people and businesses move here,” Whitmire said. “I think of a picture I saw this spring of little boys hanging on a barbed wire fence watching a bald eagle in a field and I think: ‘Isn’t that what we want?’ Not the south Truckee Meadows where the meadows are gone.”

n Protection as policy? James Settelmeyer, whose family’s beef cattle ranch also raises specialty horse hay and operates a granite gravel pit near the Lahontan Fish Hatchery, says even somewhat diversified operations like theirs are doomed if the public and local government policies do not reflect a commitment to protect agriculture.

“People have to believe ag is necessary and does beneficial things for the Valley before anything positive can happen,” Settelmeyer said Monday.

He pointed to recent events and policy decisions which he said have added nails to the coffins of his and other ag operations in the Valley.

“When the (U.S.) Forest Service opened its cinderlite pit in the (Gardnerville) Ranchos and offered free gravel to Douglas County, it took business, including the county’s, away from us,” Settelmeyer said. “The county wouldn’t approve cell phone repeater placements on a couple of private ranches or at our gravel pit, so the Forest Service, which doesn’t have to ask the county anything, let one be set up on government land. Those policy decisions affect our businesses.”

Settelmeyer said he would like to see something on the ballot in the year 2000 that would reflect whether people are interested in preserving the Valley’s agriculture and environmentally sensitive open space.

“Before we go any further, we need to make sure the community as a whole supports agriculture – we have to find out now the reality of the business,” he said. “The Rural Lands Initiative can save land, but the question is whether they can save enough.”

Settelmeyer can list from memory the ranches that have “gone under” in the past few years.

n The last option. The ranchers have one more, less desirable option, the fourth-generation Gardnerville rancher said.

“I’m a realist – I’ve worked on this ranch all my life and can’t afford to buy an acre of it,” Settelmeyer said. “My great-grandfather wasn’t afraid to move on and he came here. If it turns out I have to do the same, I think I could do it.

“My personal feeling is that we don’t have the same problems as Reno and Carson City with gangs and drugs, or not on the same scale, at least partly because of our open space – it contributes to calm over the human soul.

“What I want to say is (that) it’s hard to rebuild ag after you’ve paved it over.”