Peering across a bluff on her ranch, Gayle Goetzman looked down at the valley full of new homes.
A crew of surveyors on horseback stopped. The only sound was horses chewing on the tall grasses. After a minute, Goetzman's white horse continued on and the rest followed.
Goetzman's family farm once stretched across 500 acres of East Burns Valley. Now it is known as the Valley Oaks subdivision.
The 67-year-old horse trainer has ensured that what's left of her land won't meet a similar fate, placing a conservation easement on all but 10 acres of her 165-acre Big Valley Ranch, which is virtually surrounded by residential development and is in a swath of land designated for annexation by the city of Winona.
"I worked so hard and long to get the land," Goetzman said before a horseback ride to survey the land Thursday. "Now that I've accomplished ownership, I really appreciate it, and I want it to be in the family forever."
The easement ensures what's left of Goetzman's land will never be developed. It has been enrolled with the Minnesota Land Trust, a non-profit organization that oversees almost 29,000 acres throughout the state. Goetzman retains ownership and can sell the land, but the easement is perpetual, which means any new owner must abide by it.
Goetzman said her decision decreased her land value by half, but that doesn't concern her.
"I don't want it to get to somebody that's greedy and that just wants to make money," Goetzman said. "I'm unique in that I have something so beautiful here ... (even though) we are surrounded on all sides by development. I'm like an island."
Sacrificing for preservation
In the mid-1980s, Goetzman said, her family sold off much of their land to a developer who turned it into the Valley Oaks subdivision. The sale did not come without a fight from her, she said.
"I sacrificed not having a family," said Goetzman, a former elementary school teacher. "This (ranch) was my family. It's been a 100 percent of my whole focus of life."
The Land Trust uses conservation easements as a protection strategy for natural habitats, native species and wildlife. Since it's beginning in 1993, the organization has completed 330 projects throughout the state.
"She will retain all other rights of owner — keep it, sell it, give it away," said Walter Abramson, the organization's director of development and communications. "All she's giving up is the development rights, but she keeps the rights of enjoyment."
Goetzman had to pay attorney and assessment fees but will qualify for tax benefits and possible grants.
For the Land Trust, the size of the land and its bluffside landscape made the easement ideal despite it being encroached by development, Abramson said.
"Every project gets analyzed within the context of where it fits,"" Abramson said. "We look at it through the lens of what the public will benefit from it being protected. We're very thoughtful of what we take and deny doing, so for us … it's a great project."
Minnesota's land base, unlike western states, has been subdivided into smaller parcels over the years, Abramson said. But more land enters the pipeline every year and the organization has 100 active projects.
"It's picked up," he said. "Fifteen years ago not many Minnesotans knew about conservation easements."
Enrolling property in the Land Trust preserves the land, but doesn't automatically bring it back to its native state. It's up to landowners like Goetzman to put in the time and work to get rid of invasive plants that might have crept in over time.
Jaime Edwards, a non-game biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, came Thursday to survey Goetzman's land for invasive plant species and native habitat and wildlife.
On horseback, Edwards pointed out patches of Lead plant, a native prairie plant, that she called a rare find. While she didn't find any timber rattlers, a threatened species in Minnesota, she did find an abundance of leafy spurge, a yellow invasive plant, and buckthorn taking over the bluffs.
"This is pretty bad," Edwards said. "I'm going to recommend a prescribed burn. It will probably take 20 years to get it where it needs to be, but it probably took 20 years to get it where it is now. It's a long-term commitment."