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All in the Family

When they came to America in 1861 from a small island in the Baltic Sea, little did Peter Nielson and his wife Marie know, as they traveled West across the plains with a wagon and ox team, that they would begin a ranching legacy that continues today, more than 150 years later.

The Bluewater Heritage Ranch in Cibola County southeast of Grants, NM, runs along the northeastern slopes of the Zuni Mountains. Its grassland savannas transition into higher elevation conifer forests, supporting a rich variety of plants and wildlife, while gracing the landscape with glorious views of Mt. Taylor and the surrounding country to the north.
Numerous cultural resource surveys have unveiled the property’s diverse history, as well. Artifacts found on the property can be traced as far back as 5,000 to 10,000 B.C. when nomadic Paleo-Indians inhabited the surrounding land.

The Bluewater Heritage Ranch has been in the Nielson family for at least four generations—and current landowner, Russell Nielson, wanted to preserve that heritage. The ranch has always been a working ranch, as well as a beloved destination for Nielson family gatherings over the years.

Russ has 11 children, 46 grandchildren. As he considered his “retirement” options (as if a rancher ever really retires) and how best to keep the ranch in the family for future generations, he cited the story of another landowner who, with good intentions, had divided her ranch into equal parcels for her 10 children, which ultimately resulted in its demise as a family ranch.

“Most of the woman’s children weren’t interested in ranching, and just wanted to sell their shares,” Russ recalled. The divided parcels were each too small to effectively serve as working lands, and the few heirs who wanted to continue ranching couldn’t afford to buy out the other siblings.

Russ wanted to avoid this scenario. “I wanted to try to make it so that the ranch would stay in the family,” Russ explained. “I didn’t want to cut it up into small pieces.”

Bluewater Heritage Ranch has enjoyed a positive relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for many years, participating in a number of grant programs which have helped fund and provide technical assistance for ongoing ranch improvements and restoration projects.

But Russ still needed to figure out how to preserve the ranch and protect the investments he had made in improving it. Through his research, Russ had learned about conservation easements and then reached out to the New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) for more information. Through NMLC, Russ learned about both the NM state tax credit program for conservation easement donations and the potential for partial funding through the NRCS’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The NRCS ACEP is a competitive program and NMLC advised him to start with a donated “pilot” easement and then to use that easement donation to leverage potential, future funding through NRCS.

The Nielson family decided to follow this advice and subsequently donated a conservation easement to NMLC over approximately 2,240 acres on the western portion of the ranch in December 2015. NMLC then applied for NRCS funding through ACEP in 2016 to partially fund a conservation easement over the remaining 5,240 acres of the eastern portion of the ranch, which was successfully completed in October 2017.

The combination of proceeds that the Nielson received from the sale of the NM tax credits and NRCS funding associated with these two conservation easements enabled the Nielsons to expand the ranch’s cattle herd so that one of Russ’s sons, Christian, could move his family from Salt Lake City, to live on and work the ranch full-time.

Since his youth, Christian had always demonstrated a deep love for the ranch. He would manage the operations for Russ whenever he could, referring to his time spent on the ranch as a “guilty pleasure,” Russ said.

Of Russ’s 11 children, “Christian showed the most interest in ranching,” Russ said. “The idea developed that Christian would graze his own cattle on the ranch. The grazing plan he developed was calculated to accommodate the additional cows without over-grazing, and would serve as [monetary] compensation,” for his efforts.

And so the Nielson legacy continues. Bluewater Heritage Ranch remains whole and in the Nielson family for another generation, and the land now under easement enables the Nielsons to continue ranching and preserve a healthy piece of New Mexico’s wide-open space, wildlife habitat and cultural heritage, thanks to Russ Nielson’s foresight and commitment to land and natural resource conservation and management. #

(Reprinted here from the Fall 2017 New Mexico Land Conservancy print newsletter. Copyright 2017)

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