Wild Rice Farm Will Sustain Both Family Agriculture And The Environment Under Land Trust Conservation Agreement

The Noel Ranch property. Photo courtesy of the Shasta Land Trust.

For more than twenty-five years, the Noel family have farmed wild rice in the Fall River Valley in Northeastern Shasta County. 

Their 318 acres of land will now be permanently protected through a collaboration with the Shasta Land Trust and the California Department of Conservation. 

Ted Noel, the property’s owner, told the Shasta Land Trust he’s pleased that the conservation agreement allows the property to continue to be used as a working wild rice farm while benefiting wildlife.

“The property is important for migrating waterfowl,” Noel said, “with our rice fields acting as a surrogate wetland for bird species migrating up in the spring, and down in the fall.”

Birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway use flooded rice fields as migratory habitat along the way. In the winter, those migrating birds include sandhill cranes, mallards, widgeons, gadwalls, and a variety of geese.

Paul Vienneau, Executive Director of the Shasta Land Trust, told Shasta Scout by phone this week that the Noel family approached his organization in hopes of having their family property conserved, in order to continue using it for agricultural purposes, while ensuring it won’t be developed in future. 

The Shasta Land Trust is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving the beauty, character and diversity of significant Northern California land. Since its founding in 1998, the Land Trust has completed almost thirty conservation agreements, allowing over 44,000 acres of Shasta County land to be preserved for environmental benefit. 

Similarly to all conservation easements, Vienneau explained, the land will continue to be privately owned by the Noel family. What’s changed is that the Shasta Land Trust has purchased development rights to the property, using California Department of Conservation funds. 

“If you pulled this project (on County documents),” Vienneau said, “you’d see the Shasta Land Trust listed on the title. Technically, we now hold an interest in this property. The landowner can continue to farm it, ranch it, live on it, sell it, lease it, or give it up as part of an inheritance. The only thing they can’t do is (use it) for commercial development.”

And neither can anyone else. Once in place, the conservation easement remains with the property regardless of who owns it, Viennneau said. 

The newly-conserved Noel Ranch property includes almost 10% of the shoreline along Shasta County’s Fall River. The property contains what is known as emergent wetland habitat which benefits over 160 species of birds. The property also falls within a designated Audubon Society Important Bird Area, providing critical habitat for birds migrating along the Pacific Coast Flyway, according to the Land Trust.

The Noel Ranch easement, like many the Shasta Land Trust has been focusing on, is agriculturally focused. The easement on the property was purchased with funds provided through the California Strategic Growth Council’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC) program. Some SALC grants, like the one used for the Noel Ranch, support the permanent protection of of croplands and rangelands to protect them from being converted to non-agricultural uses, such as housing developments.​

“These ranchers and farmers are getting money to protect these properties because the state has highlighted agricultural areas as important and placed a large amount of cap-and-trade money into investing in them,” Vienneau explained.  

He said ranchers in the Shasta County area are well aware of the work of the Land Trust and routinely approach the organization asking to be considered for a conservation easement. 

Once a property is chosen to be conserved, the Land Trust will apply for State grant funds and utilize them to put the formal conservation easement in place. The funds pay the property owner for the value of the land, as determined by an outside auditor. 

The Land Trust currently has about fifteen properties on a waiting list to be considered for easements, but only has the resources to apply for 2–3 grants for conservation a year. Choosing which properties to prioritize, Vienneau said, involves a formal internal decision-making process.

“We go through a process internally through a Lands Committee composed of community members and Board members. They make a recommendation to the overall Board who then gives the go-ahead on which easements to write grants for.”

Conserving the Noel Ranch is part of Shasta Land Trust’s larger efforts across the ecologically important area known as the Fall River Valley watershed. The organization has now worked to conserve over 8,200 acres of this watershed, which was originally stewarded by the Pit River Tribe. 

It’s a special and ecologically important area, Vienneau said. And because the Fall River Valley is relatively small, investing in conservation easements also provides an opportunity for the Shasta Land Trust to increase environmental connectivity throughout the space.

“It’s kind of what we deem to be a very unique valley. It has a high concentration of farming capacity . . . and incredible habitat for migratory birds”

“It’s also one of the most famous fly-fishing areas in the country,” Vienneau continued. “It very rarely changes temperature throughout the year, so it’s phenomenal for fly fishing.”

If you have a correction to this story you can submit it here. Have information to share? Email us: editor@shastascout.org 

Three takeaways from lawmakers’ approach to natural resources management

Given that Montana’s top two industries are agriculture and recreation, it should come as no surprise that Montanans are quick to engage with policies seeking changes to the water and open space that are foundational to both. 

How proposals to change water rights, stream access and conservation funding were received by policymakers the past four months illuminates entrenched sources of tension — between developer and agricultural interests, between federal and state wildlife managers, and even between Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, and members of his own party. Here are three takeaways from the 2023 legislative session informed by bills that passed, bills that failed and funding fights that remain unresolved.


Three proposals seeking to change what might be euphemistically called “sensitive pieces of code” failed to find favor this session, suggesting Montanans’ continued — and impassioned — engagement with public land access and water rights issues.

One failed measure, Senate Bill 357, sought to prohibit the state from acquiring permanent easements, which the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks use to support wildlife habitat and public access initiatives. After garnering opposition from a diverse set of stakeholders, ranging from timber companies and agricultural associations to conservation organizations and hunting advocacy groups, the Senate Fish and Game Committee tabled the bill over the wishes of its chair (and SB 357 sponsor), Steve Hinebauche, R-Wibaux, who had argued that “forever is a long time” and that a proliferation of perpetual easements could impede the construction of infrastructure such as roads and transmission lines. Opponents of SB 357 countered that those who enter into easement agreements do so willingly and that conservation easements support the wildlife, recreational opportunities and open spaces many Montanans treasure.

Another proposal to change Montana law dealing with easements — in this instance, rights of way that have been historically used by the public, but never codified on a deed — had a swift rise and an equally swift fall this session. With little in the way of public notice, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on and passed Senate Bill 497, which sought to do two things: establish that a landowner can use the presence of government signs over a five-year period to void prescriptive easement claims, and prevent groups who sue over easement issues from recovering attorneys fees.

In the midst of the transmittal break crunch, SB 497 failed in the Senate, 14-36. Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, argued that it doesn’t work well to meddle with a “sensitive piece of code” like Montana’s Stream Access Law without bringing stakeholders along, especially in the “11th hour.” 

Finally, a real estate- and building industry-backed proposal to expand a loophole in water law dealing with groundwater wells failed to overcome an outpouring of opposition. Agricultural groups leery of House Bill 642’s potential to reduce other users’ access to water opposed the measure, as did environmental groups concerned about its capacity to degrade water quality and facilitate residential sprawl. Proponents had argued the revisions would help expand the state’s tight housing supply and introduce more clarity and lawmaker input to the Montana Water Use Act, which has been subject to judicial scrutiny in recent years.

Given the makeup of this Legislature, lawmakers probably could have passed a more moderate proposal, some onlookers suggested.

“Proponents of that bill probably could have passed something, but I think they went way too far,” Montana Environmental Information Center Deputy Director Derf Johson said. “House Natural Resources is probably the most pro-development committee in the Legislature [and even they] wouldn’t let that move forward.”


In the natural resource realm, nothing seems to spotlight the tension between federal and state regulations as brightly as endangered species management. Threatened or endangered  species are subject to federal protections that limit states’ ability to set population targets, establish hunting seasons and permit habitat-altering timber sales or mining projects. During the 2023 session, lawmakers engaged in a careful dance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is taking a close look at the recovery of grizzly bears and Montana wildlife laws as it considers removing federal protections

In February, USFWS Director Martha Williams wrote a letter to FWP Director Henry Worsech highlighting state laws that might work counter to Montana’s efforts to assume control over grizzlies. She wrote that the 2023 legislative session “presents a good opportunity” to address those concerns.

The Legislature took Williams’ recommendation to heart. Though lawmakers ultimately decided to shelve a proposal titled “require management of delisted grizzly bears at sustainable levels,” they did pass Senate Bill 295, “Revising Laws to Accommodate Grizzly Delisting.” That bill directs the state to “manage grizzly bear populations at levels necessary to maintain delisted status,” by sticking to an established mortality threshold. SB 295 critics note that it makes it legal, post-delisting, for a rancher to obtain a permit to kill a bear “threatening” livestock without specifying the behavior that constitutes “threatening.”

Mindful of Williams’ recommendations — and Gov. Greg Gianforte’s explicit desire to resume state management of grizzlies — the Legislature balked at passing predator hunting measures sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. Fielder had attempted to write seasons for trapping wolves and pursuing black bears with hounds into state law. He also sought to override the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s ability to disallow neck snares. All three proposals narrowly failed the GOP-supermajority in the House, largely due to concerns that they would lead to preventable grizzly bear deaths.


One of the Legislature’s biggest fights concerning land management —  where marijuana tax revenues should be allocated — remains unresolved. Gianforte and backers of a bill that garnered the approval of 86% of lawmakers remain locked in a tense separation-of-powers tussle over a bill that would establish a fund to support habitat and conservation initiatives.

Marijuana tax allocation had been a long-simmering fight this session, but it hit a fever pitch during the Legislature’s final week. 

A variety of different visions for the marijuana taxes emerged this session as policymakers garnered clarity on just how much money is at stake: more than $50 million annually. Some legislators, such as Rep. Marta Bergtolio, R-Montana City, suggested that the Legislature should cut the allocations for conservation and recreation programs codified in law last session and funnel more money toward law enforcement and the Department of Justice. Others, such as Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, and House Appropriations Chair Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, called for the bulk of collections to go toward the General Fund so lawmakers have an opportunity to allocate the funds toward the state’s most pressing needs on a session-by-session basis. But Senate Bill 442, the proposal that garnered the most support among both lawmakers and public commenters, seeks to divide those revenues between county road construction and maintenance, conservation and recreation initiatives, and programming for addiction treatment and veterans. A sizable chunk would go toward the General Fund as well.

That proposal might have garnered widespread support from the legislative branch, but it didn’t align with the priorities of the governor, who has argued that funding for wildlife habitat is in good shape while other state responsibilities remain underfunded. The Bertoglio bill Gianforte favored died somewhat early, and an attempt to reincorporate much of it in a late-session “generally revise marijuana laws” bill floundered. Then, the day after the Senate issued its final vote on SB 442, Gianforte made good on his pledge to Republican leadership to veto it, rejecting the proposal with a swiftness that Sen. Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, described as “curious.”

Now there’s a question as to whether lawmakers should have a final opportunity to weigh in on SB 442 by voting to override the veto. That question hinges on whether the Legislature was technically in session — the governor’s office maintains the veto was issued before the Senate moved to adjourn — and whether lawmakers were given sufficient notice of the veto. In letters and petitions to Jacobsen and Gianforte, Lang and other SB 442 backers such as the Montana Association of Counties, Wild Montana and Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, have argued a veto override poll is justified by the circumstances since the governor’s veto was not clear when the Senate voted to adjourn. 

On May 10, Wild Montana sent a letter to Gianforte urging his cooperation with the veto override process. In it, they argue that the constitution and state law make “crystal-clear” that the Legislature should have the final say in this instance and there is no legal support for stripping that power from the Legislature with “creative timing.”

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen appears to be disinclined to get into the middle of the debate. In an email to Montana Free Press, Secretary of State spokesperson Richie Melby said his office “plays a ministerial role only” for the executive and legislative branches and “bills vetoed during the legislative session are not returned to the Secretary of State’s Office.”

“I have lots of questions,” Sen. Lang told MTFP. “I still question whether it was legally vetoed.”

The post Three takeaways from lawmakers’ approach to natural resources management appeared first on Montana Free Press.

Mountain State Spotlight explains: Why West Virginia’s reliance on volatile severance taxes is problematic

For months, West Virginia lawmakers have said one thing repeatedly: the state has more than $1 billion in budget surplus. And when you look at the numbers, that’s largely thanks to the severance tax. 

That trend continued last week, as Gov. Jim Justice announced that the state had collected close to $800 million in severance taxes since July, far outpacing the roughly $250 million it estimated it would take in. This growth has fueled increased optimism about the state economy, and Justice and others have used it to help justify recent policy decisions like income tax cuts. 

But severance taxes — which are collected on natural resources extracted in the state — are extremely complicated and can fluctuate wildly. And as West Virginia touts its increased surplus achieved largely through this volatile tax, some policy experts are urging caution on how the state spends its money, particularly as it makes long-term decisions with what could turn out to be short-term gains. 

Here’s what to know about the biggest driver of the current revenue surplus — and how its role in state finances could change in the future.

What is the severance tax?

Around 34 states apply severance taxes to the extraction, production, value, and sale of finite natural resources that have been extracted — or “severed” — from the ground. That includes oil, coal, natural gas, limestone and sandstone, but in West Virginia coal and natural gas account for the bulk of severance tax revenue. In recent years, money from natural gas operations have made up an increasingly large share of severance tax collections. The state currently applies a 5% tax on natural gas and a smaller amount on various types of coal. 

Why are collections up right now?

West Virginia has made significantly more money from severance taxes since 2021, and experts say that the reasons behind this are complex. But one of the biggest factors is the ongoing war in Ukraine: Russia has long been one of the world’s top exporters of natural gas, but after the country’s 2022 invasion, many of Europe’s main consumers of natural gas have sought to find new sources. Because of this, demand for non-Russian natural gas has risen, contributing to a surge in natural gas prices in the U.S. 

That’s helped West Virginia bring in more money from natural gas in recent years.

“The high prices translate into higher severance tax collections almost immediately,” John Deskins, director of WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said in a recent interview.   

In the 2020 fiscal year, West Virginia’s state and local governments collected roughly $343 million in severance taxes. Two years later, they collected $840 million. And for the current fiscal year, West Virginia has already collected $787 million in severance taxes, putting it on track to collect more than a billion dollars before the end of June.

How has the severance tax affected the state budget?

Severance taxes are applied at varying rates at both the local and state level and counties do receive some of the money collected under the tax. But a significant portion of the money, like other taxes collected by West Virginia, lands in the state’s general revenue fund, where it is then able to be used towards anything. And those collections have had a huge impact on West Virginia’s state budget in recent years, particularly when it comes to its surplus revenue, the amount of extra money compared to what the state estimated it would take in. 

Severance taxes as a whole have accounted for about half of the state’s budget surplus in the past few years.

With so much money on hand, the severance tax is playing a big role in the financial decisions being made by the state, including on the state Legislature’s recent move to cut the state personal income tax rate. That cut, which along with several new refundable tax credits is expected to reduce state revenue by more than $750 million in the coming years, has largely been justified by the state’s high surplus, with the argument being that with the extra money, the state can afford to return money to taxpayers.

Experts say the severance tax is volatile; what does that actually mean? 

As it has had an increasing impact on state budget revenue, particularly when it comes to the surplus, some policy experts have cautioned against West Virginia becoming too reliant on the severance tax as a source of consistent, long-term revenue. That’s largely because the taxes are highly volatile, and often go through boom and bust cycles.

This has been the case historically. In 2014 for example, West Virginia experienced a significant boom in the severance tax, with it accounting for 13% of the state’s overall tax revenue. But a year later as coal production declined and natural gas prices fell, the state soon found itself in a deficit that forced budget cuts to state agencies. 

That sort of shift is always possible with the severance tax, which is why some policy experts have criticized the state for some of its decisions when it comes to the budget surplus, especially the recent income tax cut.

“We are using the severance tax to build up this big surplus, this big surplus is being used to cut the income tax, which is the most stable source of revenue and the biggest source of revenue,” said Sean O’Leary, the senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “So now we’re going to become more reliant on the severance tax.” 

“You’re really counting on this volatile, up-and-down source of revenue to become much more stable and stable at a higher level than it ever has been in the past,” he added. 

The volatility of this tax has been a concern in some other states that collect significant amounts in severance tax collections as well. In some of those states, like Alaska and Wyoming, there has been an effort to address the issue by moving part or all of the revenue into permanent severance tax trust funds that are then used to help fund certain state goals like infrastructure changes, economic development projects, or investments in education. West Virginia did have one such account, the West Virginia Future Fund, but no money was ever placed into it. Lawmakers passed a bill officially closing the account during the recent legislative session. 

What happens if severance tax revenue falls?

Because of how unstable the severance tax is, it is likely that the amount of money the state is collecting in severance taxes will begin to fall in the near future. And the state has little say in when that will happen. 

“Energy prices as a whole are really tied to global market forces,” O’Leary said. “There’s not really anything West Virginia can do to control natural gas prices.”

These prices are already beginning to decline, with forecasters predicting the price of natural gas will drop by at least 50% in 2023 when compared to last year. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy also notes that this year’s severance tax revenue is starting to trend downward from the highs of last year. While the state does have the extra money, the Center has argued that the current surplus would be better used providing additional support to address a number of ongoing state crises, and also backs giving additional surplus money to the counties that produce the highest amount of natural resources, some of which face significant financial difficulties.

“This extractive industry has not fulfilled its promises of economic prosperity in the areas where the actual extraction is taking place,” O’Leary said.

As of now, if severance tax revenue does decline, that combined with the recently-implemented tax cuts means the state will have less money to work with. Though it’s unclear exactly how that will play out, it could cause officials to have to make significant shifts in the future. 

And more broadly, as West Virginia continues to enjoy the boom of the current severance tax collections, there’s still no indication from state leaders how they are preparing to handle the inevitable bust.

Mountain State Spotlight explains: Why West Virginia’s reliance on volatile severance taxes is problematic appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.