Parts of the Heart Rock Ranch south of Bellevue look more like a work site, marred by disturbed sod and the sound of bulldozers, than a bastion of riparian habitat.
But the new owners, assisted by a group of conservationists, say the construction equipment currently building up banks will soon be replaced by willow stands, cold water trout and nesting ducks.
"There's going to be a lot of change here over the next few years, and it's going to be dramatic," said Dave Rosgen, the owner of Wildlands Hydrology, a firm based in Fort Collins, Colo., that designed the conservation plan for the 1,400-acre area under restoration.
The project includes the restoration of seven miles of spring creeks in an attempt to restore the wetlands and sagebrush that have deteriorated as a result of years of overgrazing.
"We're super-excited about this," Harry Hagey, the ranch's owner, said at an event celebrating the beginning phases of work. "When we looked at this property, we knew we had a big project ahead of us."
Hagey and his wife, Shirley, closed the sale of the 4,600-acre property in December. The property straddles both sides of U.S. Highway 20 west of state Highway 75. It was formerly known as the Crystal Creek and Spring Creek ranches. They now will be managed as one contiguous property, according to Josette Stellers, property manager and accountant for the Kirk Group real estate firm.
Shirley Hagey said that although she and her husband have lived in the Wood River Valley for 16 years, the project is an entirely new experience.
"I've learned that we have four 'cricks,' not creeks," she joked during the kickoff event.
Those "cricks" are at the heart of Rosgen's restoration plans. He said he hopes to raise the groundwater level and restore the creek banks and irrigation diversions on the property.
Much of the Heart Rock Ranch was a floodplain centuries ago. But in the late 1800s, farmers began clearing native plants, draining wetlands and diverting spring creeks to irrigate the land by flooding. As a result, the creeks widened, filled with sediment and "incised," or cut far into, the ground.
Rosgen said his main goal is to build up "oxbows" and "meanders" into the creeks and diversions, as well as raise the water table to provide more habitat for trout, waterfowl and even beavers.
Oxbows and meanders are creek features that provide secluded places for spawning and for juvenile fish. He said he hopes the ranch will become a sanctuary for spawners, serving as a natural hatchery.
"The idea is not to form a fly-fishing mecca," he said. "It's an ecological restoration."
There will be no public fishing except at one public access point.
Eventually, fish heading upstream in the Big Wood River from Magic Reservoir will come into Heart Rock to spawn and grow. While they cannot be fished on the ranch, Rosgen said the sanctuary that the ranch provides should lead to more and larger fish travelling to already established angling spots.
Restoration of the creeks and wetlands also will benefit other species. Beavers live in wetland areas, and birds nest in wetlands and oxbows.
Chris Colson, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, said developing a habitat for waterfowl is more complicated than it might appear.
"People think we're going in and building a duck pond," he said. "It's really about building a wetland."
The raised groundwater level will provide marshy areas where ducks and geese can easily nest.
"The ducks and geese are going to love it," Rosgen said.
The land comprises two of the oldest working cattle ranches in the Wood River Valley, including the former Diamond Dragon or Sun Valley Ranch.
Stellers said the few head of cattle grazing near one of the ranch's home sites are likely to constitute all the grazing that occurs on the Heart Rock Ranch. Any additional grazing would be "very minimal," she said.
Crystal Creek has been pegged for conservation plans since 2008, when Blaine County approved a development plan for the area.
The plan set aside 230 acres for a housing development that would consist of 38 homes in 11 "clusters" near the property's north end. The rest of the property was slated for an extensive stream restoration project to provide the subdivision's property owners with private fishing and hunting opportunities.
Spring Creek, on the south side of Highway 20, had been tabbed as the possible site of a new town. Developers George Kirk and Bob Kantor said the area could house commuters to the Wood River Valley, but the recession hit before the proposed development could progress further.
But plans have changed, Rosgen said. He said Hagey has no plans to develop the land, with the exception of one new home for the couple.
"They purchased the land as a conservation property," Rosgen said. "They decided they didn't want to have development, which tickled all of us."
The proposed large-scale conservation effort on the Crystal Creek Ranch was expected to be funded by sales of the property and homeowners association dues. Now no homes will be built, and the new landowners will provide the funding.
Rosgen said construction of the new and improved riverbanks will be completed by December. Work has already begun on a 150-yard stretch of creek near Highway 75, where crews are excavating sod and using logs and rock to build up the banks.
Ultimately, he said, the area will be capable of regenerating and growing without human interference—as nature intended.
"Rivers are self-formed and self-maintained," Rosgen said. "We need to make sure that when we walk away, we can walk away."
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com