A state task force charged with preserving farmland meets Tuesday, months after the Utah Legislature cut off all financing to a fund that preserves working farms and ranches a move that knocked out the state's only source that qualifies for federal conservation monies.
The newly formed Utah Agriculture Sustainability Task Force is comprised of government leaders, Realtors, farmers and representatives from various conservation districts.
Among its members is Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham, who called the recent depletion of the LeRay McAlister Fund, set up to preserve farmlands, "unfortunate."
The fund has preserved 80,000 acres of land, most of it agricultural, 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.
Another member of the task force is Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, who unsuccessfully sponsored a bill last year that would have saved some Utah farmland from development. Money to pay for the voluntary program would have come from taxes collected from other farmland sold for development, an amount that would range from $4 million to $10 million annually statewide..
Under both Draxler's bill and the LeRay McAlister Fund, farmers would be paid for development rights, putting a conservation easement on their land. With the easement, farmers and ranchers keep their land in production, and when they sell it, whomever buys it cannot develop it. The land would remain agricultural.
"There's still not enough support in the Legislature for conservation easements," said Draxler. "We keep asking lawmakers what other tools are available and so far, no one seems to know hence the creation of the task force."
Officials say that every $4 in land farmers ask to be placed under an easement, only $1 has been available to purchase it.
Earlier this year, lawmakers also rejected forming the 25-member Agriculture Sustainability Task Force so the governor stepped in, allocating about $20,000 needed for the group to begin its task. Lt. Gov. Greg Bell is its chairman.
Blackham said he is hopeful that at some point, "the task force, will come to a consensus that it is important to have some state resources invested in protecting important lands for agriculture, watersheds and sometimes for recreational opportunities."
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 University of Utah's Museum of Natural History.
Utah losing farmlands
The state has lost 500,000 acres of productive agricultural lands during this decade.
Rangelands lost in the past 40 years equals the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Source: Utah Department of Agriculture and Food