Funding for farmland preservation has been cut off
Utah lawmakers have cut off all financing to a fund that preserves working farms and ranches knocking out the state's only source that qualifies for federal conservation monies.
The LeRay McAlister Fund has preserved about 80,000 acres of land, most of it agricultural as well as recreational and archaeological sites. Over the past 10 years, the state pitched in $20 million that was matched by $110 million from the federal government and other sources.
"It was a blow, but we do have $500,000 to fund our existing projects," said John Bennett, executive director of the Utah Quality Growth Commission, which administers the fund.
Bennett is hopeful that the Legislature will be able to restore funding next year, but if not, "we could be out of business."
Mike Mower, the governor's deputy chief of staff, said he recognizes lawmakers had difficulty in balancing the budget, and with the $500,000 in the McAllister Fund "it looked like something that could be cut. We're optimistic about future funding."
The McAllister Fund has an up-and-down history of state financing. In 2006, lawmakers cobbled together $1 million for the fund, despite a record $1 billion budget surplus.
Mower said with the tight economy, the fund could have helped struggling farmers and ranchers wanting to sell development rights to their lands "so it was a disappointment that we don't have the funding to do it."
The voluntary program pays farmers for development rights and puts a conservation easement on their land. Farmers and ranchers keep the land in production, but when it's sold it cannot be developed. The land would remain agricultural.
Officials say that every $4 in land farmers ask to be placed under an easement, only $1 is available to purchase it.
The need to preserve working farms and ranches is critical, officials say.
Utah Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham has said that Utah lost 500,000 acres of productive agricultural lands this decade alone. And during the past 40 years, Utah lost farm and rangelands equaling the combined size of Delaware and Rhode Island.
Although the McAllister Fund is known for preserving agricultural lands, it also has helped finance other projects that allow for multiple use of the property. This includes Red Butte Garden and Arboretum in Salt Lake City, the Ogden City Parkway and the Chalk Creek Restoration Project in Summit County.
The fund also helped in the preservation of historic Wilcox Ranch in Range Creek Canyon, about 30 miles southeast of Price. Known for its remote and rugged landscape,
Range Creek is valued by researchers nationwide for its unique prehistoric Fremont archaeological sites. Exhibits from the 1,000-year-old Fremont culture are on display at the U. of U.'s Museum of Natural History.