Louis Wertz: How I discovered my ranchette dream is actually nature’s nightmare

(Ilana Panich-Linsman | The New York Times) Lem Brown cares for his horses at Brazos Bluffs Ranch in Waco, Tex, on Tueday, May 12, 2020.

New data released by American Farmland Trust (AFT) in “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States” is troubling me. AFT found that 11 million acres of agricultural land were paved over, fragmented or converted to uses that compromise agriculture from 2001-2016. The greatest threat to these vital acres, especially out west, is low-density residential development in rural regions; aka ranchette subdivisions.

What’s most troubling about ranchettes is that I want one.

I work as the communications director of the Western Landowners Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring whole and healthy working lands in the American West. I love to think that if I could just get my hands on some of that land, I could put my fancy words straight into practice. My family could go to bed each night and wake up each morning surrounded by the beating heart of nature, without having to hike a mile.

I am not alone. Utah, and all its remarkable growth, is quickly becoming ground zero for this type of development. Collectively, across the West, tens of thousands of people every year buy into this convenient myth of the real estate market — intending to become masters, even saviors, of a slice of paradise.

Or a former slice of paradise, I should say. Because the truth is, these mega-subdivisions are especially damaging to all of the values, accounted and unaccounted for, that farm and ranch lands provide, and that draw people to them in the first place.

As AFT writes, “This form of land use fragments the agricultural land base, limits management and marketing options, weakens farm and ranch economies, and paves the way for urbanization.”

Ranchettes also cause water and air quality problems, add to light pollution, increase greenhouse gas emissions and strain ever more taxed firefighting and public safety resources. And they reduce viable wildlife habitat.

Even well-intentioned ranchette owners make damaging mistakes for wildlife. A tidy late spring mowing of the six-acre “front lawn” to control weeds, for instance, is actually a holocaust for hundreds of ground-nesting birds.

But most of the costs to wildlife are not decisions by individual homeowners, but the cumulative effects of more and more people and our artifacts spread thinly, like a spider’s web, across the landscape. Roads and power lines are obvious threats to wildlife. More subtle threats include conflicts between wildlife and pets, which ultimately lead to removal of the mountain lions, bears, wolves, bobcats and other predators, and fragmentation of seasonal habitat that leads to diminished reproduction in ungulates and cascading effects on the food chain.

What can be done? Counties already often have zoning rules that mandate minimum lot sizes of five, 20 or 40 acres, that are intended to protect “rural character.” Increasing minimum lot sizes to the minimums required for viable agricultural operations, and also removing anti-density regulations in town centers, benefits both the towns (it’s cheaper to provide services to people close by, and local businesses do better when people can walk to them) and the country (seasonal agricultural labor and consumers who want your products are nearby and wildlife has room to roam).

We need developers and communities to think much more creatively about the rural residential development that does occur, as many in the aging farmer and rancher populations rely on land sales for retirement security. Four hundred acres of open space could provide 10 disastrous ranchettes, or it could provide 10 one-acre homesites clustered around 40 acres of shared recreational space looking out on 350 acres of working land, protected from future development by an agricultural easement, with ecologically sound management supported at least in part by homeowners who benefit from all the values of the working wild that drew them to the place to begin with. Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, has been a nationally recognized example of this type of smart rural development for going on two decades now.

With the right shared vision, perhaps there is a version of my dream that can still be achieved without creating a nightmare for wildlife and rural communities.

Louis Wertz

Louis Wertz, Wheat Ridge, Colo., leads communications for the Western Landowners Alliance. He holds a bachelor of science in journalism from Northwestern University and a master’s of science in world heritage studies from the Brandenburg Technical University in Cottbus, Germany, where he focused on holistic approaches for managing heritage sites. He completed his master’s thesis in Yosemite National Park in 2008.