Saving the Ranch
SLA makes presentation Saturday

For Paul Bendheim, the idea of “Saving the Ranch” isn’t just a catchy title for the community presentation hosted by the Southwest Land Alliance (SLA) each year. For Bendheim saving his ranch turned from a seeming impossibility to a reality a few years ago.

This year, Pagosans will have a chance to hear him tell the story of protecting his land for posterity at the fourth annual Saving the Ranch presentation on Saturday, May 30, at the Pagosa Springs Community Center.

Several years ago, Bendheim was forced to put his 323-acre ranch in Chromo on the market. It was the ranch of Bendheim’s dreams, he told The SUN, and selling it was a last resort; but because of his financial situation at that time, he couldn’t see any alternative.

Until, that is, he learned about conservation easements. With the help of the Southwest Land Alliance, the Denver-based Conservation Fund and Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), Bendheim placed all 323 acres of his ranch in a conservation easement that will never expire, thus protecting the land for his own children, and countless future generations of people and wildlife in southwest Colorado.

“That land provides an important protected view shed in Chromo, as well helping to protect an important watershed on the Navajo River,” said Michael Whiting, the local executive director of SLA.

Indeed, protecting this land is important in many ways beyond Bendheim’s family’s love for it. As it turned out, the conservation easement really did prove to be an immediately powerful tool for keeping that small slice of Chromo the way it’s always been. Just a few months after the easement officially took affect in 2007, the federal government put the mineral rights of Bendheim’s ranch up for lease to oil and natural gas companies, said Whiting. Many landowners in the West, including Bendheim, only own the surface of their land, and not the underlying oil, gas and other minerals. However, the SLA filed a protest with the federal leasing agency, and ultimately, the newly protected ranch was taken off the leasing market.

“In this case,” explained Whiting, “we were able to show that drilling would damage the actual surface value of the land. It can sometimes be hard to prove that drilling significantly damages the surface of land. But in the case of the Bendheim ranch, we showed the land to be agriculturally important, a significant corridor for wildlife and a haven for rare plants — all part of the surface value of the ranch, which would be harmed by drilling.”

Bendheim, one of three guest speakers at the fourth-annual Saving the Ranch presentation, will explain his personal experience with the conservation easement process and the personal benefits he and his family have reaped from the transaction. But more important than that, said Bendheim, he hopes to impress upon attendees at Saving the Ranch all the benefits that an entire community can benefit when a landowner chooses to protect land through an easement.

For example, the emotional, spiritual and mental health that comes with spending time in the outdoors.

“The American West has a spectacular heritage that needs to be preserved for every generation,” he said. “For millions of years of evolution human beings have lived on the land in a simpler way. It’s only in the last 100 years that we’ve industrialized the way we live. Feeling good in nature is an important part of our genetic heritage as human beings.”

And if anyone is qualified to speak about our genetic or chemical attachment to our external environment, it is Bendheim. Because this particular honorary resident of Archuleta County, when he is not busy fly-fishing on his ranch in Chromo, is a neurologist based in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

“Numerous studies have demonstrated that stress is bad for the brain,” he explained. “The kinds of stress reduction that we can do in the outdoors — even if that just means taking a break from your desk for a five minute walk outside — can be beneficial to the brain. And you magnify the idea of taking a walk away from your desk by the grandeur of a place like Archuleta County, and there’s no doubt that undeveloped nature has mental benefits.”

And the story of benefit for the brain through conservation doesn’t end there. Synergistically, the easement Bendheim secured actually allowed him not only to be able to afford to keep his ranch, but it also provided him with funds to start his own business, called Brain Savers. Brain Savers develops and markets programs and products that support healthy brain aging and reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Say what?,” you might ask. How in the world can a conservation easement allow you not only to keep your land, but also to have extra cash flowing in?

Whiting explained: “When you put a conservation easement in place, on paper you’re lowering the value of the property, so you owe fewer property taxes. That can translate into tax credits. You can get up to $300,000 in tax credits based on the value of your property. And most people don’t owe anywhere near that amount in taxes, so the state Legislature made such credits transferable. Meaning you can sell them, currently, for 82 cents on the dollar.

In essence, you could say that, through easements, some ranchers are able to have their ranch, and still afford to eat too. The May 30 Saving the Ranch presentation will illuminate how the state Legislature ensured a win-win-win situation for land owners, the government and Coloradans in general, by making easement tax credits into a commodity.

Also on the agenda, Ariel Steele, an attorney with the Tax Credit Connection, Inc., and Brad Tafoya of Brown Wheeldon Tafoya & Barrett PC — a law firm that advises clients on financial, tax and estate planning — will join Bendheim and Whiting in discussing specific strategies for saving the western ranch.

Steele has spoken for the last three years at the Saving the Ranch event. She will help explain the process of selling tax credits gained from an easement for profit.

Tafoya, for his part, will explain the long-term benefits of an easement to a family legacy.

“A lot of people don’t know that conservation easements can be helpful with estate taxes,” said Whiting. “It can be the difference between your children having to sell the family ranch when it’s left to them because they can’t afford the taxes, and your kids being able to keep the ranch. Brad’s personal passion matches his professional interest. His family was able to save their own ranch through a land easement.”

Don’t miss out on the chance to hear Bendheim’s fascinating story, or receive the important information the SLA, along with Steel and Tafoya, have to share about saving the ranch and saving the West.

For more information about this public presentation, visit www.southwestlandalliance or call 264-7779. The presentation is free, but the SLA strongly encourages that attendees become members of the SLA with a donation to the organization.

It can be hard shelling out dollars to nonprofits in these uncertain economic times, but readers may perhaps agree with something Bendheim said when he was talking about the finances of his ranch.

“At the end day, there are bigger considerations than money, he said. “We should consider the greater good.”

Photo courtesy Southwest Land Alliance
Just a few short years ago, Paul Bendheim had to put his 323-acre ranch in Chromo up for sale because he couldn’t afford to keep it. With the help of the Southwest Land Alliance and other Colorado organizations, Bendheim was able to secure a conservation easement for the property, ensuring that a For Sale sign like the one in this photo will never again stand on the surface of this small wedge of the West.