Subdividing the Open Range: Are Private Property Rights destroying what we love?

Editor's note: Guest Blogger Debby Gregorash raises some tough questions about our home on the range. What's your point of view? All comments welcome.
By Debby Gregorash
If we own private property, does this give us the right to do with it what we want?
Should we treat the land like a commodity, or should we look at private property rights from a larger, regional or worldwide point of view?  
In 1887, a quote was attributed to Chief Sealth (the proper spelling for Seattle), which says: "The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land.  How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?  The idea is strange to us.  If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?...The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth."

A hundred and twenty-seven years later, some members of society wonder if in some cases, the Chief might be right.  They are torn between their love for the land and their economic needs.  Today, large tracts of land along the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains are being sub-divided and rezoned for recreational and rural estate properties.  I own some of this sub-divided land, but I also know that the ranch, which it was once a part of, should never have been sub-divided.
As the land is fragmented, wildlife habitats, watersheds and the sweeping landscapes that tourists love so much are becoming dotted with large country homes.  It is only the rich that can afford this land that once grew food and now grows buildings.  Most ranchers cannot afford the price now.  Sometimes they have to choose between selling and being able to retire in comfort, or staying on the land because of their commitment to the land and the ranching way of life.
From a wildlife point of view, subdivision and development of recreational businesses can be devastating.  The wildlife has no say in what happens to the land that keeps them alive.  Grizzly bear, cougars, wolves, deer and elk need large areas in which to roam and cross open range to move from area to area all through the year.  Human development fragments their territories and narrows passageways and there is more potential for conflicts between humans and wildlife.  The more roads that are built, the more road-kill there will be, and the more access to elk, deer, bear, cougar, and wolves there will be for hunters.

Besides the incremental development, humans bring in dogs, quads, lights and noise.  Humans divide up their world into fenced lines and borders.  Wildlife chooses the ecosystem that best supports them – that's how nature does it.
A state biologist in Wyoming said that subdividing the west was the biggest threat to wildlife that he saw in his work.  Since 1978, Colorado ranchland and farmland has declined by 90,000 acres per year, most of it converted to subdivision and commercial development.
In Europe, multifunctional farming is supported by the governments that are aware that the tourists come to their countries to drive through the countryside, admire the view, take copious photographs and stop in the quaint villages and perhaps stay at a local bed and breakfast.  Farmers are actually paid to maintain hedgerows, fences, woodlots and roadsides.  
In contrast, western North America seems unaware that European tourists come here for the same reasons and especially that breathtaking view of the open spaces and vast rangeland near the Rocky Mountains.  Why locals are not all enthralled with the view may boil down to the fact that the wonder of nature is taken for granted, or wildlife is viewed as a nuisance.  For example, in 2001, there was a proposal by a developer to change the zoning of an agricultural area in Cardston County to grouped country residential.  It was next door to Waterton Lakes National Park, a World Heritage site and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The County councillors believe in private property rights and that a landowner should be allowed to do what they want with their land, despite the threat to the local wildlife ecosystems.  One councillor, frustrated with the large backlash from a concerned public said, "Sometimes I wish wildlife would just go away."  Despite 300 letters from around southern Alberta, North America, and the world, the Cardston County passed the rezoning and the subsequent housing development.
Those of us who cherish the wilderness, the open rangeland habitat, and the flora and fauna it contains are fighting a mindset.  Society views progress as more and bigger buildings and commerce everywhere.  
Meanwhile what is happening to the ranching community?  The divisiveness of more development on large tracts of rangeland is huge and I feel the County council of Cardston, have abdicated their responsibility to the local ranching industry and a 100-year old legacy of community-building.  Ranchers take care of the land so that it supports grazing animals, both wild and domestic.  A rancher's community includes the wildlife. 
For developers, there is the pursuit of short-term profit whereas others pursue harmony between maintaining a way of life and making a sustainable living.

We need to educate the public on this issue and discuss to what degree the public good is part of the private property equation.  Through the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society and other measures, perhaps we can find a way to protect the scenery, the wildlife habitat, and limit the invasion of human development.
At the moment, Cardston County is deciding whether to allow rezoning from agriculture to rural recreational, right next to the Police Outpost Provincial Park wetland.  
Supporters of wildlife and the ranching community have lost their fight in court to push for an environmental impact assessment.   If the rezoning goes ahead, a large recreational development will go ahead causing no end to headaches for adjacent landowners, residents, and those who use the same road.  The Trumpeter swans, Sandhill cranes, and myriad other wetland wildlife will suffer.
We have to ask whether we need the Regional Planning Commissions back again, which look at the big picture.  Municipal Development Plans and Land-Use Bylaws should be constantly updated and scrutinized by the public.  Can we count on county authorities to have the knowledge, wisdom, vision and understanding in order to create sustainable, long-term plans and to follow these municipal plans and their own bylaws without succumbing to pressure tactics or short-term gain?
These are some of the issues that must be addressed if we are to save the last of the western open rangeland spaces.  It is not only a sociological question, but also an environmental, spiritual, philosophical and political question.

Editors note - please submit your thoughts! Conversations about tough issues are important and all voices must be heard.