Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
San Juan County rancher Tommy Bolack knows that his 12,500-acre property is special.
The B-Square Ranch near Farmington boasts riverside wetlands, archaeological sites and flocks of turkeys.
Earlier this month, Bolack donated two conservation easements encompassing his entire ranch to the New Mexico Land Conservancy.
The easements will prevent the largest privately owned property in San Juan County from ever being subdivided, or undergoing large-scale commercial or industrial development.
“This is attached in perpetuity to the land, and so it went hand in hand with exactly what I’d like to see happen in the future,” Bolack said. “I want to keep this land like it is, not tear it up or commercialize it.”
The “monumental” agreement protects a “huge, unique, undeveloped piece of open space,” said Scott Wilber, executive director of the New Mexico Land Conservancy.
“It’s still going to be a working farm and ranch. In this case, the farming operation really is pretty important for the wildlife conservation aspect of the property because it provides forage for waterfowl in the wintertime.”
Conservation easements are voluntary agreements between landowners and a land trust.
Parties negotiate the deed terms to determine what activities and development should be restricted to protect natural resources or cultural sites.
The NMLC will monitor the easements each year.
“Our role is not to manage the property,” Wilber said. “The easements are still in private ownership. With these kinds of projects, we want to keep large farms and ranches intact, not prevent them from making a living on the property.”
The ranch’s alfalfa and cattle operations will not be affected by the easements.
Bolack has converted several ranch buildings and homes into museums with a focus on wildlife and the history of electromechanics.
The easements place a cap on how much additional construction can occur within those areas.
Bolack’s connection to local agriculture and multiple land uses dates back to 1957, when his father Tom “picked out a poor piece of farmland” and began planting crops on 80 acres.
The elder Bolack served briefly as New Mexico’s governor in the early 1960s.
As the property has grown, Tommy Bolack has established and maintained ponds and wetlands near the San Juan River to provide habitat for migratory birds and native waterfowl.
He raised and released 150 Rio Grande Turkey hatchlings to restore the bird to the area. The cattle ranch also boasts healthy populations of deer and bobcats.
“Hunting definitely has its place, as long as it’s managed,” Bolack said.
Several Ancestral Puebloan cultural sites can be found along the riverside property.
Bolack works with San Juan College to fund an archaeological field school on his ranch.
“I’ve worked very hard since I was very young to protect those sites from looting and pot hunting,” he said. “There’s a lot to be learned here.”
The easements allow for future archaeological research.
The land parcels finalized as conservation easements are “stitched” together in the agreement.
Those two parcels must remain together if the ranch is ever sold.
The San Juan River plot includes riverside bosque habitat, wetlands and irrigated farm fields.
A second Shannon Bluffs tract encompasses about 10,000 acres of cliffs and badlands.
The donation comes amid a federal and state push to conserve 30% of all lands by 2030.
“The only way to accomplish that goal is to include private land conservation in the mix,” Wilber said. “Tommy donated this entire conservation easement, but the reality is we work with a lot of land-rich, cash-poor landowners across New Mexico. To do something with them, we need some resources, like state funding.”
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s August announcement of the 30×30 initiative was met with praise from local conservation groups and objections from some Republican leaders.
Much of the criticism has come from residents who share Bolack’s values: conservative, skeptical of big government and protective of property rights.
But, for the San Juan County rancher, the conservation easements are a way to preserve his father’s and his own traditions of stewardship of the land and wildlife.
“We’re caretakers of the resources while we’re here,” Bolack said. “We do as much as we can to make it a little bit better.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.