Friday, August 19, 2005

TNC sells land near Silver Creek Preserve

Deal touted as bonus for conservation efforts, wildlife

Express Staff Writer

The Idaho branch of The Nature Conservancy has sold 650 acres adjoining the Silver Creek Preserve, west of Picabo, to conservation buyer Tom O'Gara. The property includes 240 acres that was one of the original Silver Creek easements, said Trish Klahr, Silver Creek watershed manager.

O'Gara owns several thousand acres in the preserve area in southern Blaine County, and TNC has been working with him and consultants on creek and riparian-area restoration for about five years. More than 400 acres of the land, west of the preserve's headquarters, could have been developed under existing county zoning.

The property "could have been a higher-density development, completely changing the character of the area," said Lou Lunte, acting director for TNC's Idaho office. "Our goal was not to prevent development but to protect the wildlife habitat and rural character in this valley (and O'Gara's plan) is consistent with other rural land uses in the Silver Creek Valley" that TNC is trying to encourage.

Klahr said O'Gara has reserved an option to build a single home with outbuildings on the property, but he already has a home on another property north of the creek.

To date, TNC has worked with 22 landowners to place conservation protection agreements on Silver Creek property in the valley, protecting nearly 10,000 acres.

Klahr said how property is protected depends on TNC's goals for an area. She said that O'Gara has plans to restore native habit on the property that is both separated by a road and contiguous with the preserve on the west end. TNC originally purchased the land in December for an unconfirmed sum.

"It was appraised in the millions. It is a nice piece of property," Klahr said. "We have a land preservation fund we can borrow from—money that is readily accessible to us if we have to act quickly."

O'Gara's purchase frees TNC to pursue other conservation projects, both domestically and internationally.

"Our mission is really biodiversity conservation, protecting native plants and animals," Klahr said. "We have to work with all types of landowners to instill an ethic. People in the landscape are going to be there. We're less interested in open space. We're more interested in high quality biodiversity."

O'Gara has also embarked on an aquifer recharge project.

Klahr said TNC is trying to broaden its work to look at the watershed ecosystem of the preserve by looking at the scale of threats in terms of water quality and quantity, including the impact of improvements that have already been made.

"We want to work within the rural landscape in a way that is compatible with wildlife," Klahr said.

The Silver Creek basin is well known for its abundant wildlife, world-class fishing, scenic vistas and farming traditions.

"The Silver Creek Valley is a working landscape," Lunte said. "It has development and farmlands. But, conservation protection agreements have allowed wildlife to thrive in the valley and for agriculture to remain viable. If this land became a housing development, it would take agricultural land out of production. This conservation-buyer transaction ensures that lands and waters in the valley continue to be protected for wildlife, and for the people who love this special place."

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