By Edgar Sanchez, Reporter for Ag Alert
Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation
Carefully steering an all-terrain vehicle, Scott Stone recently drove across his Yolo Land & Cattle Co. ranch—until he stopped to savor the view.
“It’s very peaceful here. It’s invigorating for the soul,” the 65-year-old cattle rancher said, admiring the panoramic vista—a pastoral, lush, undulating terrain leading to pine-dotted 2,200-foot twin peaks in the distance.
This landscape in Yolo County, where Stone and his family drive cattle for grazing, once could have become a golf course or other development. But Stone said, “Here, there are no power lines, no condos, no gas stations, no mini-marts.”
That’s because nearly 94% of this 7,445-acre ranch 20 miles west of Woodland has a conservation easement ensuring that most of it will remain development-free forever.
The perpetual protection was achieved in partnership with the California Rangeland Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to safeguarding the vanishing open spaces of working ranches across the state.
Since its creation in 1998, the group has worked with cattle ranchers throughout California to protect agricultural lands as open space. Legal agreements that keep properties from being developed also protect them for livestock grazing.
Privately owned ranchland accounts for 62% of California’s undeveloped land in the great outdoors—but it is fast disappearing. Since 2001, about 280,000 acres of these working landscapes have been lost to new shopping centers, housing subdivisions and the like.
To date, the Rangeland Trust has reached agreements to permanently protect more than 365,000 acres of rangeland to provide clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for wildlife and healthy foods for Californians.
Under the program, some ranchers donate part or all of their land to keep it intact for future generations. In other cases, the Rangeland Trust purchases development rights for the portions to be conserved, using a combination of its own funds, private donations and government grants.
Once an agreement is signed, ranchers retain all ownership rights, including the right to continue running cattle.
In all, about 80 ranches have conservation easements, ranging from 32 acres to 80,000 acres, said Michael Delbar, California Rangeland Trust’s CEO.
Besides Yolo Land & Cattle, some of the notable properties in the program include the Running Deer Ranch in Napa County, the Marshall Ranch in Humboldt County, the Bear Valley Ranch in Colusa County and the Sweet Ranch in Alameda County.
Ranchers entering into contracts for their properties want to work with organizations that understand the cattle sector, said Delbar, who touts the ranching credentials of the Rangeland Trust.
“What makes us so successful is that our board members are all ranchers or landowners or involved in the ranching business,” Delbar said. “That creates a trust factor with the ranching community. It also positions us uniquely with the environmental community, in that we are able to work with the ranchers to protect wonderful lands not only for agricultural purposes, but also for the immense environmental benefits.”
The overall value of those benefits was quantified in 2021 by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley. They found that the ecosystems on 306,000 acres of California Rangeland Trust properties provide about $1.44 billion in annual environmental benefits, including healthy plant and animal habitats, watersheds and climate-change regulation.
In addition, cattle grazing on the properties annually removes some 12 billion pounds of dry biomass—which can burn in wildfires—making it “the biggest fuel treatment we have in California,” said Lynn Huntsinger, a UC Berkeley professor of rangeland ecology and management, who led the two-year study.
“I definitely was surprised by how much” California benefits from the easements, Huntsinger said. “Every dollar invested brings back more than $100 in benefits.”
The Yolo Land & Cattle Co. ranch is part of the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area. The ranch was acquired in 1976 by the late Yolo County cattle rancher Henry H. Stone, who remained active in its day-to-day management until the early 2000s. Then his sons, Scott and Casey Stone, assumed greater roles as equal partners.
In 2003, about the time that Scott Stone became a Ranchland Trust board member, the family was approached by a developer.
“He wanted to build a destination golf resort on our ranch,” Stone said. “He toured the property, and I had several meetings with him.”
The Stones discussed the proposal before quietly rejecting it.
“We decided as a family that, that was not the path we wanted to go down,” Stone said. “That was not the legacy we wanted to leave for our family.”
Instead, the Stones reached out to the Rangeland Trust about creating an easement on the ranch. The family then submitted a formal project application.
After assessing the property’s value, the Stones and the conservation group designated 6,945 acres as an easement in 2005. Nearly 500 acres were not affected by the arrangement. To this day, they comprise the family’s active cattle ranch, home to 400 cattle, 10 quarter horses and other animals, as well as native wildlife, flora and fauna that extend into the easement area.
“We used half of the proceeds (from the Rangeland Trust agreement) to retire debt that we had on the cattle and farming operation,” Scott Stone said. “We used the other half to invest in income-producing property, off the ranch. We invested in real estate to help offset the high and low cycles in the cattle industry, part of the economics of being in agriculture in California.”
Stone served on the Rangeland Trust board for more than 15 years, at one point as its chairman.
His family is “happy we did the easement,” Stone said. It has given him a special vision for the how the ranch may look 100 years from now.
“I’d like to see it pretty much as it is today, maybe a little more biologically diverse,” Stone said. “It’s a pretty magical piece of property.”