A fourth-generation rancher, Nita Vail is leading a rancher-governed group in forging unexpected collaborations with environmentalists to protect over 200,000 acres of the state’s open rangelands.
As California’s population grows, new development is gobbling up thousands of acres every year that were once preserved as ranch lands.
The cost is huge, if mostly hidden. The state’s privately owned grazing lands, spread over rolling hills and oak woodlands, offer much more than a scenic backdrop. These unspoiled landscapes protect wildlife and water quality, provide Californians with locally grown food, and are vital to rural economies.
A fourth-generation rancher, Nita Vail understands that ranchers are motivated to keep their land healthy so their livestock can thrive. As CEO of the California Rangeland Trust, she has helped bridge the historically contentious divide between rural landowners and environmentalists. With a little support and understanding, Vail maintains, cowboys can be some of California’s leading conservationists.
Vail and a group of like-minded ranchers founded their land trust in 1998 to help those who were struggling to stay on their land despite high operating costs, declining beef prices, and tempting offers from developers. Says Vail, “Ranchers and the environmental community now understand that protecting our land is too big a job for any one group or agency to accomplish alone.”
The Sacramento-based nonprofit offers the ranchers alternatives to selling their land for development, including a tool known as a conservation easement. This voluntary agreement precludes future development while providing a cash payment and tax deduction to the hard-pressed rancher. This way, large areas can remain intact and continue as economically viable, working ranches in family ownership.
For the public, the benefits are equally compelling. Vail explains, “A conservation easement saves taxpayer money. It’s typically less than half the cost of acquisition, and the management is done by the rancher.” Conserving environmentally sensitive ranch land through easements protects water quality, endangered wildlife, and stunning vistas — and it does so at a fraction of the cost of outright acquisition, which carries not only a high initial expense but also the ongoing cost of managing the land.
Ranchers and the environmental community now understand that protecting our land is too big a job for any one group or agency to accomplish alone.
To date, the trust has protected more than 200,000 acres of California ranch lands — an area nearly six times the size of San Francisco. As testimony to its success, more than 100 ranch owners are waiting in line to preserve an additional 500,000 acres. Much of the credit for all this goes to Vail, who has helped forge unlikely alliances and built the rancher-governed trust into one of California’s most successful land conservation organizations.
Threats to the state’s ranch lands still loom. Vail estimates that up to 70 percent of the state’s grazing lands could change hands over the next decade, including many properties that have been run by the same family for more than a century. As a result, she is working on a number of policy fronts to help preserve these lands for future generations.
For her collaborative, effective approach to the long-term protection of California’s ranch lands, Nita Vail is a recipient of a 2010 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award.
Video by Talking Eyes Media
California Rangeland Trust
Primary Regions Served
After 20 years at California Rangeland Trust, Nita left the organization in 2020. She recently launched a new endeavor, consulting on ranch land strategies, regenerative agricultural tools, and mitigation.
The written profile and video reflect the work of the leader(s) the year they received a Leadership Award. Please contact the leader(s) for current information.