Friday, March 6, 2009

Finding common ground in the Pioneers

Conservationists and ranchers look to Carey residents for help

Express Staff Writer

In the famously independent West, discussions related to land use have long had a way of erupting into all-out brawls. That is, except in those instances when participants have put aside preconceived notions and tried to find common ground.

Blaine County residents may soon learn if they're capable of working together to tackle such a venture.

At issue is the creation of a far-reaching vision to guide land-use decisions in the nearly 2-million-acre region spanning the Pioneer Mountains and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve just east of the Wood River Valley. Proponents of the effort hope to come up with a plan that protects not only the area's unfettered landscape and healthy wildlife herds, but also the rural ranching and farming economy that's helped preserve most of its more than 100,000 acres of private ground.

The success of this emerging endeavor will almost certainly require a healthy buy-in from locals from the rural town of Carey, which sits astride the merging of these two magnificent landscapes.

Last week, backers of the effort went before Carey-area residents to seek their help. The group of landowners, ranchers and conservationists has begun to call itself the Pioneers Alliance.

During the meeting, Carey Mayor Rick Baird spoke to the importance of local buy-in. He said it's important to listen to local ranchers who have maintained their lands as open space for more than a century.

"We want to be a part of this as long as it's not restrictive," he said.

The alliance will hold its next public meeting Wednesday, March 11, from 7-9 p.m. at Carey City Hall. The group is seeking participation from anyone interested in the Pioneers-to-Craters region.

Representatives from local nonprofits and regional land management agencies will be present at the meeting.

One of the primary voices of the new effort is Mike Stevens, president of Carey-based sheep outfit Lava Lake Land & Livestock. Stepping before the crowd of local residents at the Carey City Hall on Feb. 26, Stevens laid out the goals of the Pioneers Alliance. He said the ranchers, landowners and conservationists involved in the emerging effort began to consider the future of working ranches in the Carey area when they took stock of what was happening over the hill in the lower Wood River Valley.

In the Bellevue Triangle, development plans have arisen for some of the area's most important agricultural lands. Though independent of each other, taken together they represent a massive shift, Stevens said.

He predicted that the same growth pressures will one day come over the hill and impact farms and ranches near Carey.

"Not in the next 18 months, but at some point," he said.

It's the active agricultural properties in the Carey area and the economic, recreational and wildlife values they still provide that the Pioneers Alliance hopes to maintain. The group is modeling its work after similar efforts around the West that have found success.

Stevens pointed to two such efforts as prime examples that the alliance hopes to replicate. One, led by the Malpais Borderlands Group, has brought ranchers, scientists and federal agencies together to manage wide-open grasslands in southern Arizona and New Mexico. There, ranchers have protected 75,000 acres of private land through conservation easements.

He also cited the Blackfoot Challenge, a landowner-based group working to coordinate management of Montana's Blackfoot River, its tributaries and nearby lands. Since 1993, the group has integrated weed management on 45,000 acres and protected 89,000 acres with conservation easements.

"That group got together to try to preserve natural resources and rural lifestyle," Stevens said.

He said the group is aware that ignoring people with deep roots in the area could be disastrous, and it is actively seeking their ideas, asking "what is their vision for the landscape?"

Jason Kauffman:

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