Amenity Ranch Boom Spreads East

Purchase of “working” ranches by wealthy outsiders is spreading far beyond the scenic hotspots near the National Parks and Wilderness areas of the Rockies. It is spilling out onto the plains where there has been a great depopulation as the economics of traditional ranching has collapsed.

Many places in Eastern Montana and the Dakotas now have fewer people per square mile than in 1890 when the Census Bureau declared the frontier was closed.

Hal Herring at New West looks into the phenomenon. Amenity Ranch Boom Spreads East.






  1. kt Avatar

    The article mentions that many of these “amenity” ranches include CRP Conservation Reserve Program lands. Highly erodible, exhausted dry land wheat lands are enrolled in the federal CRP program, and planted to perennial grasses and left fallow. The federal government then annaully pays the landowner to leave the lands fallow. What is the amount now? 60 an acre, annually?

    They are not supposed to be grazed.

    State Game agencies have promoted CRP to benefit upland birds, esepcially Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. One of the reasons Fish and Wildlife Service gave a couple years ago for not Listing sharptails was that acres had been enrolled in CRP. However, as soon as the drought came along, and rancher squeals crescendoed, many areas were opened up to grazing. George Wuerthner has written an essay (I don’t know if it is available on-line) that shows that taxpayers could have bought many of these lands several times over for the amount being paid out in the annual fee to the landowner to leave the land fallow.

    So, in reality, it is an infusion of tax dollar CRP payments that is helping support the “working” ranches ..So the use of the word “working” here is sort of an illusion.

    It seems to me that these estates in the middle of nowhere are just symptomatic of the growing class and wage disparity in this country, plus this situation seems often to attract those of a certain paranoid anti-regulation mindset.

    Does the land owner really live there, or do they hire a manager, and visit periodically to play? If the landowner does live there, how long will it last? It’s ironic that, as gasoline becomes scarcer, estates sprawl outward.

  2. Todd Ringler Avatar

    I worked with a lifelong rancher from Steamboat Springs last years on some CO state legislation related to substainability. Along the way, she lamented the decline of the “working” ranch and chastised their transformation to amenity ranches, subdivisions, etc. At the same time, she strongly supported the individual rights of any single rancher to do as they wish with their ranch — a rancher can’t retire with a “land rich, cash poor” model, so denying the rancher the right to sell is akin to denying them the right to retire.

    It was also clear to both of us that it only takes the selling of one or two ranches to completely change how the nearby ranches are valued. Their valuation changes from what the land can produce to a much fuzzier model of what the land is worth to an amenity buyer. Once that revaluation takes place, it makes it increasingly difficult of other local ranches not to sell out.

    In the end we both agreed that she (and the rest of us) can’t have it both ways — we can’t chastise the rise a amenity buyer and, at the same time, say ranchers can sell their property to the highest buyer. If they have the right to sell (which they do), then who else is going to buy their property?

    Personally, given our economic model, I think the tansition on the plains is going as well as could be hoped for. There are going to be traditional conservation buyers and there are going to be traditional hunter/fisher buyers — both groups have some vested interest in the state of the wildlife on the property. The ranches are staying intact at this point (i.e. not going to subdivisions) — and that inofitself is a big deal from where I stand.

    So we can lament the decline in the ranching heritage on the plains as we should, but we should not mix up those emotions with realistic economic models of how these ranches will transition.



Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan