Growing up in an agricultural area in south-central Texas, Chuck Walker fell in love with ranch life on his family’s 1,650 acres at the end of the gravel road. But by the time he headed to …
Growing up in an agricultural area in south-central Texas, Chuck Walker fell in love with ranch life on his family’s 1,650 acres at the end of the gravel road. But by the time he headed to college, the city of San Antonio was expanding rapidly. Soon the property was devoured and is now a residential area covered in homes and strip malls. He was heartbroken about the loss.
“I'm particularly sensitive to what subdivisions and growth can do to private ranch lands,” he said.
About 30 years ago the Walker family moved to the South Fork to continue a career in agriculture, launching the 364-acre Four C Ranch 11 miles southwest of Cody.
At the base of Carter Mountain, the Four C Ranch boasts a landscape composed of diverse plant communities. It includes irrigated fields east of Marquette Creek and hilly pastures to the west, which offer habitat for mule deer, whitetails, antelope, sandhill cranes and many more species. Nearly 1.5 miles of now-protected Marquette Creek provide important habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout while the cottonwood gallery along the creek bank supports migrating songbirds and birds of prey.
At the time Walker purchased the parcel it seemed a long ways from town. But times are quickly changing and recent applications for subdivisions have more than doubled since 2019.
At 79 years old, Walker feared the habitat could be lost like his beloved boyhood home. The Walkers don't anticipate their son coming back to operate the ranch, but still are holding out hope that a grandchild may want to pursue ranching. But the one thing he feared the most for the property was becoming yet another housing development.
That’s when he discovered Park County Open Lands at a meeting about conservation easements sponsored by the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust. There he learned how the community-led organization is dedicated to protecting open spaces, wildlife habitat and working lands for future generations.
“I came away from that meeting thinking that, you know, this was an opportunity for me to try to preserve this ranch that I have here,” he said.
A conservation easement is a voluntary transaction between a private landowner and a private entity; a land trust. But Walker didn’t just sign up without further investigation. He invited wildlife biologists, the local game warden and experts in conservation easements to his property for advice. He looked into the legal ramifications, including what would happen to the land if he wanted to sell or after he’s gone.
The more he thought of his ranch being developed, the more he was convinced keeping the habitat intact was imperative.
“Time is drawing short because population growth in the last couple of years, with this pandemic, has really pushed things dramatically in our area. And I was concerned, and I’m still concerned, that we have a limited amount of time to act.”
He agreed to enter his property into a conservation easement shortly after last Christmas and last week became the first to announce the completion of Park County Open Lands’ inaugural conservation easement. The easement will stay with the property in perpituity, no matter if Walker sells the property or a relative decides to do so after he is gone. It will not be chopped up and sold by the lot, allowing nature to continue to thrive in the landscape.
“This conservation easement represents a significant milestone in realizing the community’s shared vision of conserving open space, agriculture and wildlife habitat integral to the region’s natural and cultural heritage,” the organization said in announcing the completed process.
Chuck and Marilyn Walker were among the first landowners to approach the group about a potential conservation easement, though several other landowners are currently considering the option.
"With the creation of Park County Open Lands, landowners in this county now have an opportunity to preserve the open space that makes Wyoming such a special place,” Walker said. “Continuing growth threatens our private lands, which provide year-round grazing for resident and migratory wildlife herds, farming and ranching opportunities for the next generation, and open space for all to enjoy. The rate of population growth in the past few years has increased my sense of urgency. If we don't do it, it won't get done.”
The organization is currently working on 11 additional projects that represent more than 6,000 acres. “The projects span the county from Sunlight to the South Fork and from Wapiti to Powell,” said Alex Few, regional director of the nonprofit organization.
Few expressed gratitude for the Walkers’ commitment.
“I am grateful to the Walkers for being willing to share the success of this conservation easement and trusting Park County Open Lands to protect their working lands for future generations,” she said, adding “This remarkable achievement would not have been possible without the generosity and foresight of the Walkers and the founding donors who helped turn Park County Open Lands from an idea into a reality.”