The new owner of a ranch in the upper Green River drainage that is a key link on the Path of the Pronghorn has violated a conservation easement by constructing a building, a land trust says.
The Jackson Hole Land Trust discovered the situation on the ranch owned by coal magnate Chris Cline just before it absorbed the Green River Land Trust this summer, trust attorney Liz Long said. The construction described by Long falls within the Path of the Pronghorn as mapped when the route was established in 2008. The route was the first federally recognized wildlife migration corridor in the U.S.
“We became aware of a violation on one of the existing conservation easements,” Long said. “To my understanding, there had been some shuffling, some turnover in the Cline organization — some miscommunication. A [cabin] foundation had been poured on one of the conservation easements that was not permitted.”
Cline is principal strategy officer at Foresight Energy, whose website says he has more than 30 years of management experience in the coal industry. Wikipedia tags him as a philanthropist as well as an entrepreneur, with a net worth set by Forbes in 2013 at $1.7 billion.
The land trust said it is negotiating to remove 15 acres from an existing conservation easement and will receive another conservation easement nearby totaling 115 acres.
Cline’s ranch manager, Bob Griffith, put his employer’s situation this way: “There’s been negotiations about land trades and swaps since we purchased the property,” in 2014 he said. The Cline Ranch has been “totally upfront with everything.”
At up to 217 miles, the Path of the Pronghorn is the longest documented terrestrial migration in the Western Hemisphere south of Canada. Millions of dollars have been spent preserving the path, including $9.7 million by the Wyoming Department of Transportation for construction of wildlife crossings, amongst them two antelope bridges over U.S. 191 near Trappers Point in Sublette County. The Cline Ranch, which the path crosses, is about 20 air miles north of Pinedale
The impact of Cline’s construction is uncertain. The land trust said addition of the new 115-acre easement would be “a significant ecological gain.” Landowner Cline is “absolutely conservation minded,” Griffith said.
But a scientist who helped document the Path of the Pronghorn is skeptical, fearful of incremental intrusions that could one day end the migration and see pronghorn disappear from Grand Teton National Park.
“This is disturbing,” said Joel Berger, a professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado and a senior scientist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, “because death by 1,000 cuts has already eliminated so many migration routes, including in the West and including in Wyoming.”
Carney family sold landmark holdings
In early 2014 the real estate firm Live Water Properties announced the sale of the 5,500-acre Carney Ranch, a Sublette County landmark that had been listed for $20.5 million. While no sale price was announced, Live Water said the purchaser was Chris Cline and girlfriend Elin Woods [Nordegren], Tiger Woods’ ex wife, according to a news story at the time. Cline has developed and operated more than 25 coal mining, processing and transportation facilities in the Appalachian Region and Illinois Basin, Foresight Energy said.
Sublette County records showed ownership as of 2014 belonged to Seneca Industries (attn.: Cline Industries) of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Deeds showed a divided interest going to trusts and naming Donald Holcomb, a trustee, Christopher L. Cline, Alex T. Cline, Candice L. Cline and Kameron N. Cline. The Conservation Fund held easements on the property created by the Carneys.
The ranch straddles more than eight miles of the meandering Green River. “We’ve managed this property first and foremost for wildlife,” manager Griffith said.
The Otis Carney family had pieced the ranch together over decades. Otis Carney fought against dam projects that would have flooded the area. Different members of the family protected portions of the ranch in various years; Elizabeth Rohatyn transferred an easement to The Nature Conservancy in 1995; John Otis Carney assigned an easement for the Carney Land Company to the Jackson Hole Land Trust in 1998. In 2007 Peter R. and Frederika F. Carney assigned an easement to the Green River Valley Land Trust. And John O. Carney for the Carney Ranch Company assigned another easement to The Conservation Fund in 2009.
For the construction site identified by the land trust, the conservation easement says it protects wildlife and scenery “in perpetuity.” Among the values to be preserved were an elk migration corridor and “important seasonal ranges for antelope.”
Since buying the ranch, Cline has made a number of improvements, according to Griffith and Sublette County records. “We’re managing the ranch better for wildlife than ever,” Griffith said. “We have a good owner. He’s very conservation-minded.”
Some of the work has been wetlands projects, some of which started before the ranch changed hands. The ranch has improved “somewhere around 30 different wetland spots in conjunction with [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]” Griffith said. Some are small, on the order of one-eighth of an acre. The goal is to enhance the habitat of waterfowl, among other species.
Trumpeter swans frequent the ranch, especially along the Green River. “We’ll have as many as eight to 10 pair there,” Griffith said. But the banks of the river are not a good nesting site compared to a natural island. “The only successful [reproducing] ones [are] the ones on the island and pond,” he said.
So a significant project will enhance and create four or five acres of wetland with a pond and a refuge to promote trumpeter swan breeding.
“We’ve left two major islands there,” Griffith said, “planted some willows, poplar, aspen, native shrubs. We’re hoping we have the same results with the swans in this pond as well. Where this cabin’s going is on the edge of this wetland area,” he said, describing the building in question.
Cline also bought a neighboring ranch, one formerly owned by the Schwabacher family, and is consolidating two-track roads on both properties, Griffith said. Motorized trails were haphazard, he said.
“We were driving through a lot of wetlands,” he said. “We came in and laid out a road through the ranch and got rid of all that sprawling damage we were doing.”
Griffith said he also has a grazing regimen and has done some planting to ensure good grazing for wildlife, including elk.
“People are seeing a lot of changes,” he said, but they don’t know the whole story from looking over a fence. “I think in the end we’re going to have a pretty amazing property up there.”
Cline ranch fined for no permit
Sublette county records show that Cline has undertaken a number of building projects. In 2014 the county issued a zoning and development permit to Seneca Industries for a guest house with attached garage. In 2015 it issued another permit for a 100-foot-long storage shed, a shop, and a mechanical shed. It issued another permit that year for a 175-foot by 125-foot indoor riding arena. And in 2015 it issued yet another permit for a 50-foot by 208-foot maintenance shop.
Despite Griffith’s assertion that the ranch has been transparent in its plans, Sublette County Planner Bart Myers said the 100-foot long storage shed was initially constructed without a permit. The ranch paid a $50 penalty and obtained an after-the-fact permission, he said.
Myers said he had not issued a permit for any construction where the land trust said it discovered a violation of the Rohatyn conservation easement. But he said he’s heard of new construction on the ranch. “The assessor is going to send someone out and see what it is and we’ll coordinate from there,” he said.
The task of conservation nonprofits
Some of the conservation easements placed on the property by the Carney family were transferred from one conservation group to another, the recipient taking on the responsibility of enforcing the terms of each legal document. In most instances, terms allow continued agricultural use but restrict the construction of new buildings and other practices detrimental to the values enumerated for protection — most often wildlife habitat and scenery.
Easements are legal documents that allow the holder and enforcer the right to inspect the property being protected. They are of considerable value, frequently costing charitable conservation groups or federal and state initiatives millions of dollars for acquisition and enforcement.
By placing a conservation easement on property, landowners give up the right to develop, often reducing the value of the land, in exchange for money or other reward. Landowners often contribute to the transaction, sometimes by lowering their price or donating the easement outright. Landowners can be rewarded with money, with significant tax breaks, or with the belief that their property will remain inviolate “in perpetuity.”
The Green River Land Trust held the easement over the site in question. But three years ago, operating as the Wyoming Land Trust, it announced it would be working to transfer its easement to other conservation organizations.
Last summer the Jackson Hole Land Trust absorbed the Green River Land Trust in a merger. The Teton County nonprofit now is in charge of enforcing the restrictions that the Carneys placed on the property.
The merger in August transferred 32,000 acres of Sublette County conservation easements to “guarantee the stewardship of important conservation lands in Sublette County in perpetuity,” according to statements at the time. Bob Budd, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust executive director, called the merger “a proactive approach by two conservation organizations to become more sustainable and to safeguard the future of Sublette County’s ranch lands, open space and wildlife habitat.”
Without mentioning specific challenges the Green River Land Trust faced, the Jackson Hole Land Trust said the boards of the two groups decided that the merger was “the solution for ensuring sustainable stewardship of existing Sublette County conservation easements.”
Stewardship most difficult aspect
“The stewardship of these easements is the hardest part of what we do,” Long said. When the violation was discovered — right before the merger, the land trust “entered a conversation with the [Cline] family,” she said.
“They actually put forward an offer of a sizeable addition — offering 115 acres of the historic DC Bar [ranch] to the north of the development area,” she said. “We felt it was a significant ecological gain.” The land trust is finalizing the new easement documents.
As a result, the cabin will be built in a newly created “building envelope” mapped around the foundation and inside the Rohatyn conservation easement. “The 15 acres will allow for some development in that location,” Long said.
The new 115-acre easement will ensure existing wildlife habitat on that property is not disturbed, she said. The new easement covers a small, unprotected portion of the Path of the Pronghorn, Long said. She would not release maps of the proposed new easement because they had not been finalized.
Long said the new easement “actually broadens the path.”
Seen from the pronghorn perspective, however, 15 acres of conservation easement is being encumbered by a building while another part of the path — free from development today — will remain as it is if the new conservation easement sticks and is enforced. The proposed new easement could also protect the path in the future by limiting disturbance adjacent to it. According to one Game and Fish map contained in Carney easements, the building site identified by the land trust also falls within a core sage grouse area.
The land trust team weighed the impact of cabin construction in the existing easement against conservation — for all wildlife — that would result from the additional 115-acre easement, Long said.
“The scales tipped in favor of moving forward with the new easement and allowing the foundation to remain,” she said. “We’re really seeing a gain.”
What about enforcing the conservation easement and taking the foundation out? “That doesn’t enter the decision-making process,” she said.
“We found ourselves in a situation that’s less than ideal,” Long said. “All parties recognized that. The landowner came to the table with a recommendation or request that brought more conservation. Ideally these kinds of issues never arise. Mistakes happen. I have no reason to believe that this is other than a miscommunication.”
“Yes, that building envelope does fall into the Path of the Pronghorn as shown on the Forest Service delineation,” she said. “But so does some of the portion of that would be protected.”
Griffith also described the negotiations, rejecting assertions of a violation.
“We’ve been working with the conservation easements to adjust and do some trading,” he said. “That’s basically how it’s all come about.”
“We’re trading property,” he said. “We’re putting more property into the easement. We’re working hand-in-hand with the Green River Valley Land Trust.
“We’ve worked through all the agreements and amendments to establish [what] we might do,” he said. “We’ve given above and beyond.”
Cline cabin in wider portion of path
The 15-acre building envelope in the Rohatyn easement is “in an area where that path is much wider,” than other parts of the route, Long said. The path gets as narrow as 200 meters but is about two miles wide at the site of the Cline cabin.
Long described the location of the building as a site within the path as mapped in 2003 by Berger and Steve Cain, a biologist with Grand Teton National Park at the time.
To do the original mapping, Berger and Cain caught 10 doe antelope in Grand Teton National Park, fitted them with GPS collars and followed them for a year. They got about 11,000 data points “robust enough to delineate the corridor,” Cain said.
The GPS data improved on collars previously used on migrating antelope that only describe the corridor as a line. GPS collars gave the path its varying width.
“Subsequent to that, we developed the polygon that the Bridger-Teton National Forest and other agencies used to say ‘OK this is the Path of the Pronghorn,’” Cain said.
At issue: 300-400 national park antelope
The Bridger-Teton National Forest amended its management plan to recognize the Path of the Pronghorn as the first federal migration corridor in the country. Such a designation gives the federal agency teeth to protect the path from human impacts and ensure the corridor never gets severed by human activities under its control. Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge officially supported the designation, but the BLM, on whose land antelope end up in winter, did not.
The Path of the Pronghorn is a migration corridor for 300-400 antelope that summer in Grand Teton National Park and winter in Sublette County. Every spring pronghorn trek north from their sagebrush-steppe winter range that’s mostly on BLM land near and south of Pinedale. They move up the Green River drainage, through private property including the Cline Ranch, and onto the Bridger-Teton National Forest. They cross the divide between the Green and Gros Ventre river drainages near Kinky Creek and descend to Grand Teton National Park.
Along the way they face several bottlenecks, and several places where their migration path widens. Because antelope rely on their eyesight and speed to elude predators, they favor open country like sagebrush plains instead of forests. The Path of the Pronghorn is constricted by woods where it crosses out of the Bridger-Teton National Forest and onto private lands on the banks of the Green River. The bottleneck there requires antelope to wend between houses in a ranchette subdivision.
About 10 percent of the Path of the Pronghorn in Sublette County crosses private lands, Berger and Cain wrote in an article published in Conservation Biology in 2014. Dealing with landowners has always been challenging in that area, the two wrote about the path’s history: “Some ranchers and homeowners felt any federal legislation for POP might jeopardize their personal freedoms.”
At another bottleneck, Trappers’ Point, other features like willows funnel antelope into a place where hunters could more easily stalk them, and thousands of years ago hunters did. The Wyoming Department of Transportation spent $9.7 million protecting migrating antelope and deer by building fencing, tunnels and two antelope overpasses over U.S. Highway 191 near Trappers Point.
Farther south, migrating antelope are challenged by the Pinedale anticline gas field on the Pinedale Mesa, part of their winter range. More gas fields are planned farther south along their route.
In June, 2008, the Green River Valley Land Trust got $1 million from Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne through the Jonah Compensation Mitigation Fund to study and alter fencing along the path to make it easier for antelope to follow their traditional route.
Just last month, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation and the Department of the Interior announced they had bought 640 acres of Wyoming school trust land — on Grand Teton National Park’s Antelope Flats — from the state. Wyoming had threatened to sell the land for potential development and school revenue if the conservation purchase wasn’t completed. The mile-by-mile section “lies in the path of a primary migration route for pronghorn, bison, and the largest elk herd in the world,” the foundation said, underscoring a principle reason for the fundraising. The nonprofit foundation raised $23 million from private donors in 8 months. The Jackson Hole Land Trust contributed $1 million.
What effect will Cline’s cabin have on migrating antelope? Nobody knows the answer. It’s being built where the mapped path is wide. But barriers to migration are not always physical, biologists say. One study of migrating deer showed them speeding up when moving through developments, slowing down in other areas and even pausing for days or longer along a route. What human activity will go on at the cabin and when? Will it stress migrating antelope, and if so, to what effect? How many intrusions might it take before the Path of the Pronghorn no longer serves antelope?
It is such a death by 1,000 cuts that Berger fears — an environmental demise paved by “mitigation” said to offset development.
“It is a pity that this is occurring when America has only one single protected migration corridor at the federal level,” Berger said. “I’m confused and also frustrated. There were more than 19,000 public comments submitted to protect the Path of the Pronghorn. And so why is this still an issue — that people can violate terms of a conservation easement?”
This story was updated Jan. 3 to add Joel Berger’s affiliation with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Jan. 23 to correct where the pronghorn cross from the Green to the Gros Ventre drainage. They cross near, not over, the Kinky Creek Divide.— Ed.