Friday, January 24, 2014

County backs plan to preserve ranch

Conservation groups seek $1.1 million from Land, Water and Wildlife fund

Express Staff Writer

Rock Creek Ranch contains hills, pasture land and 89 miles of riparian habitat southwest of Bellevue. Photo courtesy Wood River Land Trust

    Blaine County on Tuesday took the first step toward turning a 10,300-acre ranch southwest of Bellevue into public land intended to provide wildlife habitat and recreational access.
    During a special meeting of the county commissioners at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey, the commissioners granted “conceptual” approval of a request from The Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust for $1.1 million from the county’s Land, Water and Wildlife Program. The money, by far the biggest expenditure to date from the program, would be used as part of a $6 million project to protect the Rock Creek Ranch, which runs from west of Bellevue south for about nine miles to U.S. Highway 20. Combined with about 10,000 acres of surrounding BLM and state land, it would create 31 square miles of open space available for public use.
    With conceptual approval, the proposed project will go back to the Levy Advisory Board to hash out what is expected to be a myriad of details before it is resubmitted to the commissioners for a final decision.
    “We’re deciding one thing tonight—that we don’t want to let this opportunity get away from us,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said. “I think this is an extraordinary opportunity for Blaine County.”
    Lou Lunte, deputy director of The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, told the commissioners and the 40 or so people in attendance that the property has been on the market for $12.6 million. He said the property’s owners, the Rinker family, whose most well-known member is developer Harry Rinker, are willing to donate the $6.6 million difference between the asking price and the agreed-upon price for the proposed project.
    “We were very pleased to come back to the community, which has given us a lot over the years,” said Harry Rinker’s son, Bart Rinker. “It’s a way to say thank you. [The property] will be used and managed in a way that certainly my father would be very proud of.”
    Lunte said the plan is for the property to be placed under a conservation easement funded by $3.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grassland Reserve Program. According to the website of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, the goal of the Grasslands Reserve Program is to prevent pasture land from being developed or converted into cropland.
    The ranch would then be bought for $2.2 million, with the easement intact, by The Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust. The two organizations would then sell it to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for $1.1 million. Their request for $1.1 million from the Land, Water and Wildlife Program would cover the other half of their purchase price.
    The Land, Water and Wildlife Program, funded by a two-year, $3.4 million property-tax levy passed by county voters in 2008, is intended to protect clean water in the Big Wood and Little Wood River watersheds, preserve fish and wildlife habitat, and protect working farms and ranches as open space. It has to date funded five projects and, according to program Coordinator Clare Swanger, has $2.8 million left to be spent.
    In most cases, conservation easements obtained by The Nature Conservancy or the Wood River Land Trust are placed on private property to limit development, and that’s the extent of the arrangement. In this case, however, the Rinkers were not interested in continuing to own the property, a situation that Land Trust Executive Director Scott Boettger said prompted the organizations to seek another conservation-minded owner. In addition, Lunte said, turning the property over to the Department of Fish and Game would permanently guarantee public access and make use of the department’s wildlife-management resources.
    Gregg Servheen, the department’s official in charge of land acquisition, said the property would become one of the department’s current 32 wildlife management areas, which cover about 300,000 acres in Idaho. He said the primary wildlife goal there would be to preserve sage-grouse habitat, though the ranch is also an important migration corridor for deer, elk and pronghorn.
    “We think there are tremendous opportunities around the riparian areas as well as the upland areas,” he said.
    Keri York, senior conservation coordinator for the Wood River Land Trust, said the property contains several sage-grouse breeding areas, as well as 89 miles of streams. Mark Davidson, representing Trout Unlimited, expressed support for the funding request, and said projects could be undertaken on the property to improve stream flows and aquifer recharge.
    However, two members of the public expressed concern about whether the Department of Fish and Game’s mission to provide hunting, fishing and trapping opportunities might conflict with conservation of wildlife on the property, particularly in light of the department’s recent efforts to reduce wolf populations. Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said he’d like to see nonlethal predator management given priority, and Commissioner Larry Schoen asked Servheen if the department would sign an agreement with Blaine County to manage the area in a manner consistent with local values concerning wildlife. Servheen said he did not have the authority to make that commitment, but would pass the request on to his superiors.
    Servheen said the department solicits local public input for management plans at all its wildlife management areas, and development of a management plan for the Rock Creek property would involve a two-year public process.
    York mentioned mountain biking as one of the property’s recreational attractions. In an interview, Wood River Bike Coalition Director Brett Stevenson said the area has only a rudimentary trail network.
    “It’s our hope that we can work with the Department of Fish and Game to develop and improve some of these trails, because especially in light of the recent loss of [part of] the Croy system,” Stevenson said.
    York said motorized use would be allowed only on existing roads. But David Sondholm, representing the Idaho Mountain Dirt Riders Association, said the area surrounding the ranch gets a lot of use by motorcycle riders in the spring. He advocated that if the area is put under Department of Fish and Game ownership, motorized use be allowed to continue on trails that now cross both BLM and private land.
    Wade Brown, easement program coordinator at the Boise office of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the extent that motorized use would be permitted on the property is still under discussion. He said motorized routes could be excluded from the easement area.
    Under state law, the property would be exempted from property taxes once it is owned by the Department of Fish and Game. However, it would be subject to a fee equal to the property tax generated if it were assessed as agricultural property.
    Commissioners McCleary and Greenberg advocated that The Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust contribute some of their own money to the project—$200,000 each, McCleary suggested—so that Land, Water and Wildlife Program money could be stretched further to fund future projects.
    “To hear a request for additional funding comes as a bit of a surprise, because we feel that we’re producing something of extreme value at a minimal price,” Boettger said.
    Commissioner Schoen agreed that the two organizations were providing the county with a cost-efficient project.
    “This is one of the best, if not the best, leveraged projects that the Land, Water and Wildlife levy has ever had,” he said.
    Compromise on the matter was reached when McCleary moved that the board approve the proposed request for “up to” $1.1 million. The motion was approved unanimously, sending the proposal to the Levy Advisory Board for more work.
    Though the meeting Tuesday raised many issues that the board will need to address, its time to do so is not unlimited. In an interview, Nature Conservancy Deputy Director Lunte said the conservation organizations’ sale agreement with the Rinker family expires June 1. He said he did not know what the organizations would do if a decision on the Land, Water and Wildlife funding is not made by then.
    “It would help us a lot if we had an outcome there,” he said. “ … [But] if the levy funding did not come through, we would certainly look at other options before just walking away.”
Greg Moore:

Courtesy photo

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