During NM Governor Bill Richardson’s first term in office, I was director of policy and issues, and I dealt with matters concerning water. During that time, Cecilia Rosacker and several colleagues approached the Governor’s office about the possibility of obtaining state funding for agricultural conservation easements (CEs). This correspondence was routed to me and served as my introduction to the concept. I became convinced CEs were the best way, and perhaps the only way, to prevent water rights on agricultural lands from falling victim to the inexorable pull of municipal and industrial uses in the water rights market. Gov. Richardson agreed to allocate funding to agricultural conservation easements, which RGALT used to finalize several of the organization’s early easements. Since then, I have learned about RGALT’s history and watched the organization evolve to what it is today.

Twenty years ago, a group of Socorro County farmers and wildlife conservationists launched RGALT around Cecilia Rosacker’s kitchen table. Rosacker, who is the organization’s current Executive Director, recalls the motivation behind the organization’s founding, “Socorro County was contemplating the establishment of a county zoning ordinance, potentially classifying agricultural land in ways that would limit landowner’s options, impacting private property rights. This initiated an in-depth discussion between the founding members of the organization about the government’s impact on land values. We were wanting to identify alternate options to protect agricultural land and water, both of which are highly valued by Socorro County’s citizens.”

After conversations with conservation organizations around the country, RGALT started ironing out the organization’s articles of incorporation and bylaws, and completing the application for non-profit 501(c)(3) status. In 1997, RGALT received federal approval as a non-profit land trust. Since then, RGALT has been an organization whose sole purpose is to facilitate farm and ranchland owners’ abilities to control the protection of their agricultural lands through their own initiative.

In the early days of RGALT, the majority of the founding members’ energy was devoted to garnering community support and landowners’  trust. This was a critically important pursuit for  the organization’s current success. According to Rosacker, “There was just so much misinformation out there about conservation easements and government involvement, as opposed to the private landowner’s initiative that actually drives the formation of CEs. It was clear from the beginning that the only way to achieve landscape conservation and address misunderstandings about CEs was to gain community support. This required relationship building and bringing diverse and unlikely groups together to protect the lands we all cherish for widely diverse reasons.”

In 2004, RGALT finalized its first CE, an easement that protects ten irrigated acres near Casa Colorado State Game Refuge in Socorro County. Today, RGALT holds 25 easements across New Mexico with another 3 in the works. The organization is also accredited through the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), a national organization of land trusts that ensures land trusts around the country pursue the best standards and practices for conservation. With this accreditation, RGALT continues to evolve and grow as an influential non-profit conservation land trust organization. Moving forward, new avenues of funding will be needed to maintain operational procedures, establish new conservation easements, renew LTA accreditation, and continue the community outreach efforts that are essential to the organization’s success. While funding an expanded staff is critical to these efforts and the next twenty years of RGALT’s development, RGALT’s board and friends are optimistic that the best years of service and accomplishment are yet to come.

When I retired in 2009, Cecilia invited me to join the RGALT board. I agreed and have been involved in the organization ever since. In the broad scheme of water, wildlife, agriculture and money, our efforts are a drop in the bucket compared to the immensity of the issue. However, RGALT and the other land trusts are working to ensure that there will always be verdant agricultural lands and natural open spaces that support New Mexico’s wildlife and the quality of life for our people. I play a small role in RGALT’s efforts, but this opportunity has given me the chance to interact with the salt-of-the-earth men and women of NM’s agricultural communities, a satisfying and an ample reward for serving as RGALT Board Member.

Article written by Bill Hume, Secretary of the RGALT Board of Directors