Since 1954, Sheila Varian and her herd of Arabian horses have roamed their land in Corbett Canyon, protecting the rolling hills from residential development and preserving it for the native wildlife. Now Varian has partnered with the California Rangeland Trust in an effort to maintain the 230-acre property's rural nature in perpetuity.
"I'm getting older, so it's time to do it," Varian said. "This isn't something you do in an afternoon. It takes a great deal of preparation, and it's set up differently than anything the Rangeland Trust has done before."
The first step will be to raise money to fund the conservation easement, which is valued at $2.5 million, according to California Rangeland Trust Chairman Darrel Sweet. Upon purchase of the easement, the property will no longer be subject to growing development pressures from houses and vineyards.
"Traditionally, people who purchase properties with conservation easements on the title keep the land as a ranch and take good care of it," Sweet said. "People want to conserve their ranches because they've worked hard to build them and keep them in ranching, and they recognize the value of open space and wildlife habitat and watershed values and all those things ranches bring to us."
The main goal of the California Rangeland Trust is to conserve working cattle ranches through the easements that confine residential development to well-defined areas, and prevent conversion of the land to vineyards or other uses beyond rangeland.
"Our main purpose is to help conserve working cattle ranches as ranches because we know there's a lot of threat to rangeland values," Sweet said. "One of them is obviously large amounts of conversion. We've lost more rangeland to conversion to intensive agriculture, like vineyards or almonds or trees, than to housing, but we also lose a lot to development."
Varian's horse facility is an exception, based largely on her visibility in the equine world.
"The exception is being made because of the property's location, because of Sheila and her status, in the horse world and particularly in the Arabian horse world, and because of the people who are coalescing around her," Sweet said.
Varian, who was born in Santa Maria, moved to the Corbett Canyon Road property in the 1950s when her parents, Eric and Wenonah Varian, purchased the original 21-acre parcel four miles east of the Village of Arroyo Grande. There, they encouraged their daughter to pursue her dreams of breeding, raising and training show horses. In 1963, Sheila Varian became the full-time manager of the facility that has grown to encompass some 230 acres of rangeland, rolling hills and chaparral.
"This land has always been a love of myself, my parents, my staff, and we have really treasured this piece of property and taken care of it," Sheila Varian said. "Then the horses, of course, have added to it greatly and supported it. It's just too precious not to protect. You've got to take care of the land. The land can't take care of itself."
Varian Arabians has been ranked by the United States Equestrian Federation as one of the leading breeders of winning Arabian horses. In 2013, Arabian Horse World Magazine ranked Varian Arabians the No. 1 breed of both English-type and Western-type Arabian horses.
Varian herself was honored by the USEF with the 2001 Ellen Scripps Davis Memorial Breeders' Cup in recognition of her consistency in breeding outstanding show horses. In 2003, she was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. The Arabian Breeders Association's awarded her its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and in 2009, she was named the Arabian Professional & Amateur Horseman's Association's Breeder of the Year.
Most recently, Varian was selected last winter as Breeder of the Year in the Arabian Horse Times Readers' Choice Awards.
"If you place an easement on the ranch, the development rights are extinguished. Both parties agree that development rights are gone. No one will own them. There won't be any, at all, ever," Sweet said.
Under the agreement, Varian will remain the owner of the land. Upon her death, the property will pass to Angela Alvarez, Varian's longtime range manager and dear friend. Under the agreement, Alvarez may continue the Varian Arabian bloodlines.
When Alvarez retires, the ranch will be donated to the Rangeland Trust as a planned gift, which will then be sold to a conservation buyer. The proceeds from the sale of the ranch will be used to fund conservation easements on other ranches throughout the state.
The conservation easement will remain on the land, just as utility and transportation easements do, so no further development may take place.
“I could not bear the thought of if I was not capable, or I die immediately, this place would be broken up,” Varian told attendees of her annual Varian Jubilee in August. “There would be houses all over it and the animals would have no place to go. Now, everything on this place will be safe and you will be safe to visit here. ... So, for me, the California Rangeland Trust has been the perfect partner on this and has been willing to do what I wish. Now I am comfortable and can rest easy knowing that this place will be taken care of.”
For more information about the conservation effort, upcoming fundraisers and other related events, visit http://www.rangelandtrust.org/protect-varian-arabian-ranch.html.