$38M easement will protect Alberta ranch land

The wind through the pines, the rustle of rough fescue grass and the burble of creeks are the most common sounds on Waldron Ranch, a 30,535 acre stretch of native grassland between the Rockies and the Porcupine Hills.

And that’s the way this home on the range north of Lundbreck, Alta., along the fabled Cowboy Trail, is going to stay. A deal between the Waldron Grazing Co-operative and the Nature Conservancy of Canada will ensure it.

The $37.5 million purchase of a conservation easement was officially announced Sept. 11, after two years of negotiation with 72 members of the grazing co-op.

It is the largest Canadian landscape ever to be conserved by an easement, and the property will remain a working ranch without cultivation, subdivision or commercial development.

“I’m satisfied that we garnered the best deal that we could get and that we created the best easement that we could do for our membership,” said co-op board chair Tim Nelson.

“We’re OK allowing (the NCC) to come on the ranch and put an easement on the land, but we still want to run the ranch as we’ve always run the ranch and we want to graze it the way we’ve always grazed it.”

The land is appraised at $75.4 million. By agreeing to restrict development, the co-op gives up $33.5 million of that value. The NCC will pay the co-op 20 percent of the land value, which is slightly more than $15 million. The co-op will also get a tax receipt for $18.5 million.

Larry Simpson, NCC’s associate regional vice-president, said the deal meets the organization’s goals of protecting landscapes and preserving wildlife habitat.

“I think we’re viewing success, as a conservation organization … if we can keep sustainable agriculture in place. If we can have landscapes that are ecologically robust and healthy and landscapes that inspire present and future generations, well, then we’ve done something worthwhile. I think with the agreement we’re working on with the Waldron, it accomplishes all those things.”

Seventy-five percent of co-op members voted in favour of the deal. Nelson said all members share a desire to preserve the grassland for grazing. That and the $15 million were attractive carrots.

Co-op member Jim Lynch Staunton was one of the dissenters. As a younger rancher among the Waldron shareholders, he had mixed feelings about a deal that applies restrictions to land use.

“I think we all have doubts, even the people that voted for it, but I have made peace with it,” said Lynch Staunton.

“The nature conservancy restrictions aren’t very bad. They’re not going to change the way we do things very much, but I guess I’m just cautious about the future and maybe one day I’ll want to do things that the nature conservancy won’t want me to.”

Mike Roberts, general manager of the ranch, greeted the deal with optimism.

“Over the next few decades there’s going to be extreme pressure to develop this land,” he said, noting the area’s beauty and accessibility.

“Highway 22 goes right down through the middle of it, 450,000 cars a year, most of them recreationalists. In the future, it would be hard to say no (to development.) So in this instance, I think it’s probably a good thing because the Waldron is one of the last big expanses of grass, and this kind of ensures that it will stay that way.”

The co-op negotiated autonomy that will allow ranch operations to proceed as they have for the last 50 years. It means Roberts’ job won’t change much, if at all, and ranchers will be able to graze 10,000 head each summer.

As the winners of a national environmental stewardship award in 2010, co-op members and managers have proven they know how to maintain range health and native habitat.

“We’re probably more environmentally friendly than most people believe because we have to keep that range in a very healthy condition or else we don’t get paid,” said Nelson.

“We make sure the riparian health is good. We make sure that the grass is good. And when we do that, it naturally leads to the fact that there’s great habitat for wildlife, that there’s great habitat for different species of grass, and that we can graze our cows.”

The easement does not include the three building sites on Waldron Ranch, which make up a few thousand acres.

Neither Nelson nor Simpson said history played a part in negotiations, but the Waldron is one of the last big ranches that flourished in southern Alberta in the late 1800s.

Walrond Cattle Ranche was established in 1883 by Duncan McNab McEachran, backed by Sir John Walrond Walrond of England. The original spread was 260,000 acres between the Oldman River and the Porcupine Hills.

It later expanded to 300,000 acres, and was administered from head offices in England.

According to Glenbow Museum records, the ranch ceased active operation in 1908 and the cattle were sold to rancher Pat Burns, a founder of the Calgary Stampede.

After that, various portions were leased to area ranchers, and a group eventually changed the name to Waldron Ranches Ltd.

Several owners came and went, and the grazing co-op bought it in 1962.

The NCC has yet to raise the final $3 million to finalize the Waldron deal and has set up a website to solicit donations.

The Waldron includes property at the headwaters of the South Saskatchewan drainage basin and includes habitat for fish, elk, grizzly and black bear, moose, white-tailed and mule deer, eagles, hawks and wild turkeys.

It is also home to grasses, wildflowers and trees, including some limber pines that are 800 years old.

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