Friday, March 13, 2009

Ranchers and conservationists talk trust

Participants in Pioneers-to-Craters effort work on getting to know each other

A skeptical crowd, including Rick Mecham in the cowboy hat, with his back to the camera, listened to conservation groups sell a new plan to keep lands in the Little Wood River drainage free from development. Photo by Jason Kauffman

Farmers and ranchers from Carey arrived at a meeting of the Pioneers Alliance on Wednesday evening with a healthy dose of skepticism about the group's aims for their rural lands.

But they left the meeting with what appeared to be a greater understanding of and appreciation for the group's desire to conserve the region's undeveloped private ground before the ring of the hammer and whine of the saw inevitably arrive. While they may disagree on many things, everyone taking part in the effort does seem to agree on one thing: They don't want the Little Wood River drainage to end up like its glitzy neighbor to the west.

The idea that the Little Wood is still like the Big Wood River drainage once was came up during the night's lively discussion. Folks on the Little Wood like that their views are not obstructed by multi-million-dollar mansions and that seasonal wanderings of local wildlife aren't blocked by large subdivisions.

Still, for now at least, the work of the Pioneers Alliance in Carey remains more of a trust-building exercise than anything else.

Ultimately, supporters of the effort hope to create a far-reaching vision to guide land-use decisions in the nearly 2 million-acre region of mixed federal, state and private ownership that spans the Pioneer Mountains and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Though the downturn in the construction industry has given the Little Wood and its 130,000 acres of private ground a little more breathing room, that won't last forever, they point out.

Eventually, the developers will come calling.

Prior to that eventuality, the Pioneers Alliance hopes to work with local landowners.

But before that can happen, those involved in the alliance will have to convince Carey residents that they don't have a hidden agenda to end the traditional uses of local land, Wednesday's talk made abundantly clear.

"I need some more information," said Carey cattle rancher Rick Mecham. "I need to know exactly what this group plans."

Comments like that set the tone for the more-than-two-hour meeting.

Many Carey-area residents, including Mecham, are still smarting from previous decisions by federal officials they consider heavy-handed. Most notably, they point to then-President Clinton's decision in 2000 to greatly expand Craters of the Moon to cover all of the 62-mile-long Great Rift, a geologic span of volcanic lava flows and sweeping sagebrush immediately east of Carey.

Actions like that and efforts to curtail grazing have left people skeptical of conservationists, Mecham said.

"I'm tired of people coming after me to destroy my way of life," he said. "Conservation over here is a four-letter word."

Repeatedly throughout the night, members of the Pioneers Alliance—which includes both local ranchers and the Wood River Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the Idaho Conservation League—worked to ease such fears.

What the group wants to avoid in the Little Wood area is the loss of farm and ranch land to subdivisions, said Trish Klahr, The Nature Conservancy's Watershed Manager in Hailey. According to Klahr, Idaho has lost about 500,000 acres of agricultural land to homes in the past 10 years.

For many of Idaho's farmers and ranchers, high estate taxes and rising property values are forcing them to sell their lands, she said. The only other option is for these landowners to partner with a land trust or similar organization to find ways of preserving their land in its undeveloped state.

"That's what we do, we partner," Klahr said.

For more than an hour, Klahr and others explained how voluntary conservation easements could help preserve local open-space land and help keep area ranchers and farmers on their properties. Though the discussion was met with suspicion at first, hardened positions from some in the audience seemed to soften.

Near the end, participants came up with a number of issues the group could work on together to begin establishing trust. Among those, local ranchers want the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to address rampant trespassing by off-road vehicle users during the fall deer season.

These efforts are important and could help establish the level of trust needed to tackle larger projects, said Carey Mayor Rick Baird. Baird said he wished the Pioneers Alliance had been around 10 years ago when growth issues first cropped up locally. Then, locals who swore they would never sell their land woke up to skyrocketing property values.

"Everything was for sale overnight, it seemed," he said.

Baird thanked the group for better explaining its goals.

"We're all here for the same reason," he said. "That's to keep this place the way it is."

The Pioneers Alliance has tentatively set its next meeting in Carey for April 12.

Jason Kauffman:

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