Conservation means many things to many people and plays a large part in land use planning in Sheridan County and the state of Wyoming. Although new developments popping up throughout the county may indicate metropolitan growth, local officials believe Sheridan faces little risk of losing its wide open spaces to the sprawling development known to have consumed nearby states.
While Carrie Rogaczewski’s first language is English, her second is conservation. As manager of the Sheridan County Conservation District, Rogaczewski coordinates with staff to maintain conservation projects throughout Sheridan County and works daily with multiple agencies to ensure compliance and cooperation.
“As a conservation district, we provide assistance to private landowners to implement conservation practices,” Rogaczewski said. “This could be in the form of information resources, technical guidance and/or financial assistance.”
SCCD works in close partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to achieve conservation goals. The two entities work hard to communicate the importance of balance within conservation. In many of its projects, SCCD works with local, state and federal agencies and organizations, which provide grants and technical resources to aid SCCD in completing projects.
“Without these valuable partners, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” Rogaczewski said.
Conservation districts were created out of the devastation from the Dust Bowl with hopes of the U.S. never falling back into times such as those again.
“The same holds true today,” Rogaczewski said. “Our soil and water resources are so important — not just for food, but for other products and recreation. If we don’t serve as good stewards of these resources, they will be lost to us. As a district, we strive to provide assistance and opportunities to help.”
Sheridan County Commissioner Christi Haswell and Robert Briggs, planning and economic development director for Northern Wyoming Community College District through Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority, both work with groups to balance growth with amenities Sheridan area residents cherish. In their respective positions, Haswell and Briggs work with agencies to find harmony between agricultural preservation and land development. The possibility of an imbalance in that regard doesn’t exist in Sheridan County at this point, they said, nor do they expect it in the near future.
“We’ve been fortunate that Sheridan’s growth has been slow and steady over the last decade — about 4% since 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau information,” Haswell said. “That has given us the opportunity to look ahead and plan with our conservation values in mind. If we do see more significant growth in the future, we’ll need to accelerate our planning with the public.”
Sheridan County encompasses 2,523 square miles of land area, with 24.29% of it federally owned by the U.S. Forest Service in the Bighorn National Forest. Of the total area, public land totals 36.03% and private land totals 63.97%, with the final .15% covered by surface water, according to statistics compiled by Brodie Farquhar, a Casper-based journalist, on wyohistory.org.
Sheridan County saw agricultural land — based on active irrigation status — decrease from 1,133,324 acres to 800,569 acres from 1997 to 2017, although the number of ag-based operations increased from 325 to 473 in that same 20-year stint.
Briggs said he believes that while the development of land for agricultural purposes competes with other growth opportunities, all contribute positively to Sheridan County’s economy.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind that we don’t have to look at this as a dichotomy where each gain in economic development is a loss in terms of open land and agricultural production,” Briggs said. “We have the opportunity to make positive choices that align with our needs and values.
“I think in Sheridan County we value open spaces and our agricultural heritage, and we also value living in communities where there are jobs and housing availability for ourselves, our family and neighbors,” he added.
Haswell agreed, bringing her perspectives as a commissioner, senior project manager at SWCA Environmental Consultants and service with the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust and the Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Council.
“At this time, I don’t feel metro growth is a serious threat to the agricultural industry,” Haswell said, noting invasive grasses pose more of an issue to agricultural land than development.
With a growing decline in the oil and gas industry and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic experienced around the globe, Haswell expects those impacts to naturally slow economic growth.
“As a consultant, with current trends in coal mining and the oil and gas market, I actually see less pressure from population growth as we lose those jobs,” Haswell said.
She noted at the end of 2019, just before the 2020 legislative budget session, a lot of effort went into trying to predict the revenue the state could expect to see over the next two to five years, and the Power Wyoming Simulation projected declining revenue of approximately $200 million every year for the next four years and a loss of 4,000 jobs in the state.
“For most states, low energy prices are a good thing, but in Wyoming, that also means a loss of jobs,” Haswell said. “The oil market drop and the COVID-19 pandemic have doubled the impact in some ways. We will see oil go back up, but we were already in a scenario of declining jobs and revenue.”
Growing through unknowns
Despite an uncertain future for Wyoming economics, Briggs knows Sheridan County to be a place people want to live. Decisions made by collaborating agencies with established community master plans aid in preserving what people love about Sheridan while enabling positive economic growth with sustainable infrastructure.
“Speaking for myself, I think it is important to keep in mind that as a desirable place to live, Sheridan County and its communities will have to continue to address needs such as housing and employment,” Briggs said. “Development pressure will continue, but we have an opportunity to shape growth based on what we value most, which includes our open spaces and agricultural lands. Developing and implementing quality local plans is a way to ensure that these values are expressed in a form that provides a framework for decision making.”
Haswell said recent economic downturns helped solidify the importance of conserving open lands for all types of uses.
“One positive note in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic is that our great outdoors, trails and wildlife are still there, and I imagine a lot of people are and will be taking advantage of more outdoor recreation this spring and summer (taking care not to cause resource damage),” Haswell said, mentioning benefits of open land to include wildlife, open space and connections to the land through raising livestock, gardening or cultivating crops or hay.
And while some see growth in areas west and north of the city of Sheridan, bemoaning the loss of prime agricultural land, elected and hired officials continue to seek balance in land decisions throughout Sheridan County. α