SHERIDAN — As the Sheridan Community Land Trust celebrates its 10-year anniversary, its leadership recently reflected on the mission and accomplishments of the local nonprofit.
SCLT focuses on preserving working ranches, open spaces, wildlife habitat and historic sites, as well as increasing recreation opportunities.
Typically, land trusts are organizations that focus on conservation using easements, working with private landowners to protect property by restricting development. This is one of three mission areas of the SCLT focus.
“Our mission takes some time to connect the dots between conservation, historic preservation and recreation, how they interrelate and how they are all equally important parts of building a community that cares about its character,” SCLT Executive Director Colin Betzler said.
“It morphs as it goes along, always with the center focus. The breadth gives us that flexibility to slip into action where we are most needed,” SCLT Development Director Kary Matthews added. “The organization’s founding fathers set forth a huge mission.”
Addressing community issues
In the early 2000s, community studies were conducted that identified issues and opportunities in Sheridan County. Citizens were asked to identify the county’s major problems and challenges, its strengths and assets, and what projects they would like to see completed in five, 10 and 20 years.
Some of the issues identified included:
• how to tackle growth in areas that aren’t efficient from a tax perspective or desirable from a community character perspective.
• how to prevent ranches and irrigated agriculture land from being subdivided and developed.
• how to preserve historical assets.
• how to keep public access and create opportunities for access to recreation areas.
According to Betzler, Sheridan County Commissioner Terry Cram, then Sheridan Mayor Dave Kinskey and Brian Kuehl, a consultant for the city at the time, got together in 2005 and looked at the results of the community assessments and decided that a land trust would be a good vehicle to tackle the complex ideas.
“Sheridan’s decision-makers are forward thinking individuals who understand that Sheridan County is going to grow,” Betzler said. “They understand that the community can either respond to growth or get ahead of it, direct it and choose how things should happen. The town of Sheridan has planning documents that show that decisions have been made as to where the community has specified good locations for development and what areas need to be protected.”
In 2006, a part-time interim executive director came on board and hired permanent staff, including Betzler who came on in 2009.
Early successes included Volunteers of America being the first to donate a conservation easement, which is now held by SCLT on a portion of VOA’s property bordering Little Goose Creek. Also Wyoming’s very first historic preservation easement preserved the historic qualities of the Sheridan Inn, including the facade and other elements of the structure.
According to Betzler, in the last 10 years SCLT has not only achieved its original goals, but took them to the next level. He attributes the success to the organization’s ability to look at similar land trusts that are older and see what they’ve accomplished, see what those communities have valued over time and include that in SCLT’s mission.
When the organization was created, the city and county used Optional One-Cent Sales Tax funds to get it up and running. Through diversification they now depend mostly on what they close out in terms of projects in any given year and almost 300 annual supporters. Their dependence on the one-cent tax is now between 3 and 18 percent rather than its 100 percent dependence during the first few years.
Early accomplishments, ongoing work
SCLT has nearly 3,000 acres protected in conservation easements with private landowners across the county, including small open space easements within the city limits and larger 1,000-plus acre ranch property easements along creeks and rural areas. The organization holds nine conservation easements currently and has three more in progress.
The historic preservation projects that SCLT has completed include the Black Diamond Byway and preservation of the Doc Hudson House near Clearmont.
A recreation project achievement of SCLT’s is the Soldier Ridge Trail, which has become a mainstay for many in the community.
According to Betzler, Sheridan residents historically have not had great access to public lands nor have they had great access to any sort of developed recreational asset. The plan behind building a trail system is to build an asset in the community that is close in proximity and makes it so that people have an easy option to get outside, learn about where they live and learn about the importance of the landscape. The long-term goal is for the recreation mission to tie into the conservation mission.
The Unplug program also includes this long-term goal. According to the SCLT website, it is a collaboration between SCLT and Science Kids, and provides free monthly outdoor education programs for children and their families.
Two projects that SCLT is currently working on include the Red Grade Trails System and the Tongue River Water Trail.
“The Red Grade Trails project has built about 2 miles of trail to date and 1 more mile allowed on state land. The reconstruction of the two existing parking lots will be finished in about two weeks,” Betzler said. “We view it as sort of the long-term project. Thirty-four miles were designed, but we’ve got to go through a number of different public processes and environmental reviews first. There are about 6 miles of trails proposed on BLM lands, which we hope to start this fall.”
Tongue River Water Trail includes an online trip planner. It provides an idea of where to publicly access a navigable waterway in the county, what hazards are involved, what kind of craft is appropriate and the flow levels. SCLT is in the process of building boater-friendly fencing, improved access sites and on-river wayfinding signage.
“There are about two-dozen barbed wire fences across the Tongue River, which are dangerous for boaters,” Matthews said. “We are encouraging land owners to let us help them change out those fences and help with the cost of that.”
“We’ve secured grant funds to replace existing fence with a boater-friendly fence,” Betzler added. “We are not going to be able to do 30 fences all at once, but certainly we could pick away at two or three a year.”
SCLT has several other projects in the works, hoping to build on its success.