If it's not happening near you, it's probably happening near someone you know: people moving in, bringing houses and fences and roads to land once covered by crops and cows. They're coming to places you might expect, such as Colorado's front range, and places that might surprise you, such as the plains of North Dakota.

What makes this migration unusual is that people today are moving as a lifestyle choice: maybe to get their kids into a better school or be closer to hunting opportunities. Freed by digital communications, many people - and corporations - can do what they want from where they want.

And where they want turns out to be small towns and rural areas, which is also new. "The West is traditionally an urban population," says Jeff Jones, Rocky Mountain regional director of the American Farmland Trust. "Now in over half the counties in the West, rural population growth exceeds the urban rates." One indication: over the last 10 years, land used for grazing has been declining at a rate of 1.6 million acres a year, much of it being turned into developments.

Even regions with modest growth rates are seeing increased land conversion because people are buying homes with larger lots. "Ranchers call them 'weed-ettes,'" Mr. Jones says. "They say they're too small to grow, too big to mow." The parcels can't sustain a ranching operation, but some new owners give it a try. "They put way too many horses or cows on the parcel and overgraze it and basically reduce it into a landscape that can no longer support vegetation," Mr. Jones says.

Some state policies actually encourage subdivision. For example, a 1972 Colorado law allows cost-free subdivision of ranchland if parcels are at least 35 acres with
no type of county review necessary. Several counties witnessed a huge increase in subdivisions obce that law was enacted.

Developers and real estate agents were no doubt happy, but the subdivisions create a host of problems and are a financial burden for local governments because the developments tend to be far from utilities and services. They take water away from agricultural purposes. They reduce wildlife habitat and interrupt migration corridors. The increased land values mean an increased tax burden for ranchers; those values also make it difficult to add acreage to their operations or transfer them to their children. The aesthetic impacts are obvious.

Steve Oswald has witnessed them. His south-central Colorado ranch is, or was, deep in ranching country. By the 1990s, subdivisions had appeared. "Now there's spots on our place where you see houses everywhere," he says.

Mr. Oswald was not happy about the changes. "It's a different world," he says. "It's a whole different type of people; most of them don't like cows. The biggest problem was we couldn't talk on the same basis." Still, he decided he'd better make friends with his new neighbors. He began by working with a holistic resource management group. "They had a project here; the mission was to study communities like this. They came in and had a couple seminars that tweaked the interest." He also got a grant from the Colorado Grazing Lands Initiative to put on some more educational seminars.

Today his cows are grazing on the subdivision and his neighbors are glad to have them-and to have Mr. Oswald. "I don't know how many comments I've had from people saying, 'Please don't sell,'" he says, adding that reaching out made the difference. "The key is showing people what the ecological process is," he says. "Once they understand that, they're open to grazing. You've got to change minds one at a time."

That is something every rancher might want to consider. "One of the things ranchers can do is be better participants in education and information-providing," says Mark Brunson, associate professor in the college of natural resources at Utah State University. "We shouldn't expect broad public relations strategies to work. We're more sophisticated than that as citizens. We need work done at a more personal level, and information that acknowledges the problems we've had as well as the successes." He suggests efforts such as getting kids from the community out on the land to see what you do; inviting people to come and see your restoration project; putting up a sign on an exclosure saying who did it, when and why.

"We look at people moving to the rural West as part of the problem, and in fact they are (because they do change the land price structure and they often resent the byproducts of agriculture), but they can be sources of money and support too. They move here because they have a positive attitude toward the land and the communities," Mr. Brunson says. So look for ways to make them defenders of agriculture, rather than opponents. "It's sometimes hard when someone is ignorant and they don't understand what we're doing," he says. "But this is America and we can't make them go away."

Other Strategies

That doesn't mean that nothing can be done to protect agricultural lands. Many ranchers are getting involved in local politics and land use planning efforts. There are also private initiatives and non-regulatory solutions for landowners being developed and refined all the time. They include:

  • Conservation or agricultural easements: These are legal agreements, usually between a landowner and a conservation agency, that limit the uses of the land. A wide variety exist and they can be tailored to meet a rancher's needs. Besides securing the future of the land, the agreements offer more immediate benefits of income tax deductions and reduced estate value.
  • Collaborative planning: "We feel that it's critical to get various publics involved in understanding the value of agricultural land and contributing," Mr. Jones says. That may mean spelling out the fiscal and the ecological benefits of agriculture for people, perhaps showing what the land might look like if they continue to grow the way they are. In some cases, teams of local officials, ranchers and environmentalists come together to work on common goals. The Malpai Borderlands Group in Arizona and New Mexico is one example and the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group in Montana is another. These groups are creating their own zoningdistrict with the support of the county.
  • Estate planning: If heirs can't afford the estate taxes, they may be forced to sell. Proper estate planning is imperative in avoiding that outcome.
  • Farm or ranch link programs: These help bring together retiring ranchers, who want their land to stay in agriculture, with young people seeking an opportunity to get started in agriculture. Tools such as easements are used to make arrangements for the benefit of everyone.
  • Limited development: This option combines protection of the ranch operation with carefully planned, limited development. One Montana family sold one 20-acre lot, away from the ranch headquarters, to capitalize their ranch.
  • Business diversification: Increase ranch income by capturing the range of values that ranches produce beyond food and fiber-maybe wildlife habitat, hiking access or fishing. Many ranchers are also looking to new marketing opportunities, which are likely to multiply with the changing landscape.

"There's going to be a terrific change over the next two decades over the West," says Tom Isern, professor of history at North Dakota State University. "It will cause terrific disruptions of traditional ways of life and create new opportunities. People who are willing to roll with this will have advantages they never had before," says Mr. Isern, who predicts there will actually be more farms and ranches in 2020 than in 2000. But they'll be different from what we've seen before. "If you're raising elk for velvet for the Japanese market, I'd still call that farming," he says.

What everyone agrees on is that change is coming. What it looks like depends on what we do today.