The Pinedale-based Wyoming Land Trust recently laid off three of its four employees and will transfer conservation easements to other land trust groups.

Donations have been down, said Bernie Holz, president of the Wyoming Land Trust board.

“I think nonprofits have been having trouble for years, you know, with the downturn in the economy that occurred in the late 2000s and the ongoing recession and recently this fiscal cliff information in the media and uncertainty of what the tax structure will be,” he said. “…I think when people are uncertain, they become conservative to charity [donations.]”

The trust has 58 existing easements spanning more than 32,000 acres throughout the state. Most are in Sublette County.

The land trust purchased most of them from farmers and ranchers. The easements are locked in perpetuity to protect viewsheds, wildlife and migratory paths. Ranchers can grow hay, graze cattle and irrigate the trust lands. Their children and grandchildren may also continue using the easements in the same way — if they inherit the farms or ranches. Small drilling rigs sometimes operate in the easements.

In addition to the 58 existing easements, Wyoming Land Trust staff members were working on 18 pending projects over 31,000 acres after the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service gave the state $73 million — $14 million of which would go to the land trust when easements close — for projects that protected sage grouse habitat.

Wyoming Land Trust has contacted all landowners to tell them of the organization’s changes and that protection of the easements could be transferred to another group.

“We wanted to be sure the landowners heard directly from us first,” said Lara Ryan, Wyoming Land Trust’s executive director and now sole employee. “We have completed that process.”

Staff and board members of the organization reached out to similar groups in Wyoming like The Nature Conservancy.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is the only state agency that holds conservation easements. Transferring an easement will take time, said Butch Parks, Game and Fish’s lands administration supervisor.

Although groups like the Wyoming Land Trust and Game and Fish want to protect wildlife, their philosophies may differ.

“Our priorities for land conservation easements may be different from Wyoming Land Trust and other conservation groups,” Parks said. “As a consequence, we can’t willy-nilly take on any conservation easement without looking to the benefits of that easement to Wyoming wildlife.”

“They’ve expressed an interest in helping us in the ways they are able to, and while it’s too early to decide which projects will go to which conservation land trusts, everybody wants to work together so that it’s smooth and effective,” Holz said. “And it’s interesting that these easements are perpetual and will likely outlive any individual organization that holds them. Everyone wants to do as good of a job as they can at passing the torch.”

This year, the Wyoming Land Trust board will decide whether to operate as a leaner organization or close its doors.

In 2000, a group of ranchers, educators and business owners formed the Green River Valley Land Trust. For a decade, the organization paid ranchers, provided them income or helped them get a state tax benefit for turning over conservation easements.

At the time, newcomers were flooding Sublette County, flush with cash for second homes from the dot-com boom, or working in natural gas drilling.

In 2010, the organization expanded statewide and was renamed Wyoming Land Trust.

It was the first land trust in Wyoming to receive accreditation from the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance.

In the organization’s beginning, people didn’t know much about how conservation easements worked. Wyoming Land Trust helped push the conservation forward.

“It’s hard to characterize whether people are more in favor or less in favor of conservation easements, but they’re certainly more well-versed in the facts surrounding land conservation,” Holz said.

Reach state reporter Laura Hancock at 307-266-0581 or at Follow her on Twitter: @laurahancock.

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