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Historic land deal between Alberta ranchers, conservancy seeks to keep the wild in Wild Rose Country

Jim Lynch-Staunton and his father, Hugh, ride at the historic Waldron ranch on Sept. 11, 2013. At Waldron, a co-operative of ranchers has entered an agreement with the Nature Conservatory of Canada to permanently conserve more than 30,000 acres of land on the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

Against a cloudless blue sky, the grassy Alberta foothills of the Waldron Ranch seem limitless. A herd of cattle grazes on a distant plain that ranchers say looks the same as it did a century ago, without a single road or building in sight.

To preserve this view for generations to come, a co-operative of 72 ranchers has struck a deal with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to protect 12,357 hectares of postcard-perfect ranchlands under a conservation easement. The $75-million piece of private property about 175 kilometres southwest of Calgary will be the largest parcel of land in Canada ever covered under a land easement agreement, the deal's backers say.

As in other parts of Canada, agricultural land prices in Alberta are skyrocketing. As the province's population booms and its increasing wealth drives a search for acreages or "ranchettes" along the touristy Cowboy Trail – a small, scenic highway that winds alongside the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains – ranchers and conservationists alike say such flexible land conservation agreements are crucial.

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"I'm going to be honest – we don't really want [the easement], 100 per cent," rancher Tim Nelson said of giving up some control over the land. "But we want it to preserve the land. . . . We don't know about the next generation. And we're worried. What happens in 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and they start developing it?"

The deal, for which the Nature Conservancy is still raising funds to finalize early next year, will allow the 51-year-old co-operative ranch to function as it has for decades, and land will still be bought and sold. But the easement will be registered on the land title, a move that permanently prevents new development, subdivision and cultivation – and will keep away the roads, fences and houses that dot the landscape in the rest of Alberta and the Prairies.

"What makes this place special is it's such a vast expanse of grass that is pretty much undisturbed," said Mike Roberts, manager of Waldron, where more than 10,000 cattle graze every year.

The Nature Conservancy says Alberta leads the country when it comes to land easements, because the landscapes in the province are bigger.

"In Southern Ontario, a large conservation project is a few hundred acres. But here, it's a few thousand acres," said Larry Simpson, a regional vice-president for the land trust organization. "As a tool for conservation, an easement makes a lot more sense in ranch country than it does, say, in the more settled areas of Canada."

Earlier this year, three quarters of the members of the Waldron Grazing Cooperative Ltd. voted in favour of the easement, giving the deal the green light.

This agreement will give the land-rich co-operative a quick infusion of more than $15-million in cash, and a tax shelter. But it also comes at a cost to the ranchers. Both the Nature Conservancy and the ranchers say the restrictions placed on the land title could reduce its value in a future sale by about 40 per cent. The ranchers' acceptance of a capital loss is being considered their contribution to the land trust.

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No one is calling the land pristine. The Cowboy Trail intersects the ranch, a power line crosses a small part of it and a natural-gas pipeline runs underground. There are currently no oil or gas wells, but gas drilling remains a possibility – most Alberta landowners do not have the final say on what happens on their property beneath the surface.

However, the huge expanse remains ecologically and historically significant. Wild animals, including bears and cougars, use it as part of their range, and the land represents one of Alberta's last intact blocks of nutrition-dense rough fescue grass – which cattle, elk and deer need for year-round sustenance. Dozens of teepee rings left by Blackfoot travellers are still in the ground near the Oldman River, and every year during the spring melt, several buffalo skulls are found – remnants of a time when vast herds wintered in the area.

Mr. Simpson said the road from Longview, Alta., a village closer to Calgary, south to the ranch is one of the most beautiful drives in Canada.

"If this was all carved up some day, wouldn't that be a loss – not just for Alberta, but for the whole country?"

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