There’s a little slice of paradise nestled in the Rosebud River Valley.
Along its craggy cliffsides, golden eagles and peregrine falcons nest, while moose and deer leave their own marks on the native grassland that surrounds the river’s edge.
But these lands are home to more than just the wildlife. On top of the river valley lie cultivated fields — and the farmers who own that land have taken the first steps to protect the scenic valley forever.
“If you’ve ever seen the Rosebud River Valley, it’s quite nice. We’ve got cultivated land all around these unique little river valleys with lots of wild spaces, and I just think they need to be conserved,” said Rick Skibsted, who owns a grain farm along the valley near Drumheller.
“What’s missing from the Prairies now is the prairie.”
Skibsted has been exploring putting a conservation easement on his land for “many, many years.” About five years ago, with support from his neighbours, he started putting the wheels in motion by contacting Western Sky Land Trust, a Calgary-based conservancy that focuses on watersheds and natural areas in southern Alberta.
“We could easily fit what we wanted to do in their program, and they were so excited about it that, after reviewing everything else, that’s where we decided to go,” said Skibsted.
“It’s kind of invigorating when someone else is excited about the same thing you’re excited about.”
And after much back and forth — including successful applications to the provincial Land Trust Grant Program and the federal Ecological Gifts Program — more than 4,000 acres along the river valley will be preserved in perpetuity.
“Basically what we’re doing is saying we’re not going to develop or subdivide it or put any industry on it. We’re not going to break up any more grassland,” he said. “It’s just going to remain as agricultural land. And if we farm sustainably, we can farm the way we always have been.”
That was a key part of the reason that Wendy and Richard Clark joined Skibsted in signing the easement toward the end of last year.
“We were faced with some threat of urban sprawl coming from Calgary, and we felt we wanted a way to make sure that, that didn’t happen to our land,” said Wendy Clark.
But perhaps more importantly, the group wanted to maintain an unbroken area of farmland and grassland along the river, and the easement protects these lands on top of the river valley where the Skibsteds and the Clarks farm.
“We felt that if anybody could inappropriately develop on top of the valley, that would be a detriment to the river valley,” said Clark. “Having this cultivated land included is a really big deal.”
The agreement has put their mind at ease, she added.
“It’s a wonderful way to maintain private ownership and yet feel like you’re preserving the legacy of your farm,” said Clark. “I really believe that, going forward, lots of farmers and ranchers might be interested in considering this as an opportunity to protect agriculture and our natural spaces.
“We can’t always count on our politicians to do it for us.”
Landowners sometimes have misconceptions about conservation easements that turn them off the idea for their own lands, but depending on the easement, very little need change in how the land is being managed, said Max Fritz, executive director of the Western Sky Land Trust.
“The farmers never really lose control of the land and how it’s run,” he said. “They always manage the land the way they’ve managed it before, according to the conservation easement. They’re always in the driver’s seat. They just have a new partner beside them.”
“A conservation easement typically changes very little about how you’re currently managing your land,” she said. “We’re only stopping the things we never would have allowed on our land in the first place.”
Most farmers already have a conservation mindset, said Fritz, the formal agreement just ensures that the land is managed that way in perpetuity.
“Farmers are great stewards of the land, and they’re always exploring other opportunities and options for the land into the future,” he said. “They’re thinking about their legacy — how the land can tell that great story of generations of farming and ranching.”
And the farmers behind this easement take that legacy seriously.
“We’re just stewards here,” said Richard Clark. “We’re just here for a little blip of time, and we’ve been given a tremendous opportunity to carry on this tradition. We’d like to see it continue on into the future.”
“Our families gave us the opportunity to farm this land,” added Wendy Clark. “The idea wasn’t that they gave us the opportunity so that we could sell it for a windfall and walk away from it.
“So this is our promise to our neighbours — you don’t have to worry about the land next door to you. And our hope would be that our neighbours will do the same.”
In fact, some landowners in the area are already pursuing easements of their own to preserve their own little piece of paradise. And Skibsted couldn’t be happier.
“We’ve sort of got a movement going on in the river valley here,” said Skibsted. “Most farmers appreciate these native spaces. They really do. It’s the exception that doesn’t.”