A massive land-protection agreement in Sublette County closed Thursday, conserving nearly 19,000 acres of historic agricultural land, critical wildlife habitat and iconic view sheds.
The Sommers Grindstone Conservation Project is one of the most extensive private lands conservation efforts in Wyoming’s history and includes four separate conservation easements and public fishing access on nearly five miles of the Green River.
The landmark agreements of the Sommers-Grindstone project were made possible by the vision of landowners Albert Sommers, his sister Jonita Sommers and Maggie Miller of Grindstone Cattle Co. The project is a partnership between the landowners, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust.
“This easement will allow the land to remain undeveloped, which is a benefit to cattle and wildlife, and it will allow us to pass our ranch along to another generation of ranchers,” Albert Sommers said. “We are trying to create a future for this ranch.”
The Sommers siblings decided to put their ranch under a conservation easement after their mother passed away in 2006. Neither Albert nor Jonita have children to continue their cow/calf, yearling and native hay operation and they wanted to better ensure their land would remain in agriculture.
“We’re basically tying up the development value of the land and leaving the ag and wildlife values,” Albert said. “Regardless of what happens in the future the land will be available for ranching.”
Maggie Miller of Grindstone Cattle Co. joined the Sommers’ to also conserve her ranch and protect it from development.
“When I first came to Wyoming, I thought the land was so incredibly beautiful,” Miller said. “Ranches are disappearing and so is the wildlife. This is a big outfit, mostly contiguous with BLM and state land, and this was a great opportunity to conserve it.”
An extensive group of funders, including both private and public agencies, joined in support of the Sommers-Grindstone conservation project. Project funders include the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field mitigation funds (JIO & PAPO), Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Landowner Incentive Grant Program, Walmart Acres for America through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative through the Bureau of Land Management, Doris Duke Charitable Trust through the Nature Conservancy, Turner Foundation, Wyoming Governor’s Big Game License Coalition, Wildlife Heritage Foundation of Wyoming, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Mule Deer Foundation, as well as a significant contribution from the landowners.
“This project represents a unique private land-wildlife habitat conservation and public access partnership. The collaboration among the landowners and other partners involved in this project, and their desire to conserve agricultural land and wildlife habitat, and provide high-quality public fishing access on the Green River, is impressive. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and Department are proud to be a part of this outstanding partnership,” John Kennedy, Wyoming Game and Fish Department deputy director, said.
A major portion of funding for the Sommers-Grindstone easements was the result of contributions from oil and gas companies as mitigation for development within the Jonah Infill Drilling Project and the Pinedale Anticline Oil and Gas Project. Encana and BP are the major contributors to the JIO fund while Questar, Shell, and Ultra are the primary contributors to the PAPO fund.
“Western ranchland is disappearing and with it important wildlife habitat. Partnerships between government agencies, willing ranchers and conservation groups are increasingly important to the future of this habitat,” John MacDonald, Bureau of Land Management acting project coordinator with JIO/PAPO, said.
The JIO was created by the Jonah Project Record of Decision to provide overall management of field monitoring and mitigation activities, both on- and off-site. PAPO was created by the Anticline Project Record of Decision to provide overall management of on-site monitoring and off-site mitigation activities. The PAPO obtains, collects, stores and distributes monitoring information to support the adaptive management process and analyzes mitigation projects primarily focusing on mule deer, pronghorn and Greater sage-grouse.
“This is the most complex private lands conservation project to date in Wyoming and was possible only with the support of many organizations,” Pamela Dewell, Wyoming Stock Growers Ag Land Trust executive director, said. “It is an extraordinary example of how the conservation of working ranchlands can help mitigate the effects of energy development and rapid growth. Nearly 19,000 acres will forever remain a part of our working landscape, available to wildlife migrations and breeding grounds and the provision of food, fiber and other natural resources to future generations. We are deeply appreciative of the landowners’ foresight and generosity.”
The easements lie at two critical locations along the Green River in northern Sublette County and serve as important corridor and buffer areas between the Bridger Teton National Forest and the Green River. Two of the easements provide an immense, unbroken landscape between two large tracts of Bureau of Land Management land. They are also located along the west side of the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field.
The cattle ranches are comprised of hay meadows, riparian areas, a diverse population of tree stands, upland areas, sagebrush and high-prairie-grass areas and wetlands. The agricultural land provides important habitat and vital migration corridors for deer, antelope, elk and moose. The riparian areas are home to nesting song birds, raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds, sandhill cranes and blue herons. Additionally, the ranches and surrounding areas host sage grouse leks and protective habitat for the species.
“This project represents the dedication of multi-generational Wyoming ranch families to maintain habitat for wildlife and to maintain a future for agriculture in Wyoming,” Bob Budd, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust executive director, said. “This is a model for how truly great things can happen if we dream big and think outside the box.”
At the request of the landowners, the Sommers-Grindstone conservation project includes a public fishing access easement on the Green River. The area will be walking and boat access to nearly five miles of the river.
“Our family has always allowed fishing on our property,” Albert said. “With more and more ranches being bought as fishing estates, we wanted to include the access to continue our legacy of allowing the public to fish.”
The landowners intend the fishing access and the protected open spaces to benefit the entire Upper Green River Valley community. Generations to come will see the vistas and a portion of the valley just as settlers did more than 100 years ago.
In addition to the fishing access, the landowners also chose to transfer the mineral rights on a portion of the property to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. This is intended to help protect the surface from mineral development, while still allowing for the development of the minerals through such technologies as directional drilling.
Adding to the agricultural and wildlife benefits of the Sommers-Grindstone project, these easements play a significant role in preserving unique features of the Cowboy State’s history and culture. The ranches were homesteaded in the late 1800s and early 1900s and were a central part of the area’s development. There are significant archeological and cultural resources on the ranch including tepee rings, a medicine wheel and historic ranch buildings. The historic Sommers’ ranch house and bridge across the Green River are on the National Register of Historic Places.
“When you have so much history on a piece of land you feel very connected,” Albert said. “How this land will be treated in the future is very important to my sister and me.”
The conservation easements are held by the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust and the ranches remain under the ownership and management of the landowners. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission holds the public fishing access easements, to be managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in cooperation with the landowners.
“I hope this becomes one of the more appreciated open-space projects,” Miller said. “It provides great benefits to the land, agriculture, wildlife and our community. I hope it’s appreciated and inspirational to others to continue doing similar things.”
Source: WY Stock Growers Ag Land Trust
Posted by Haylie Shipp