Friday, February 28, 2014

Rock Creek Ranch plan moves ahead

County seeks binding document with Fish and Game

Express Staff Writer

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

The Blaine County commissioners are seeking more authority in an agreement with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game regarding long-term management of the 10,300-acre Rock Creek Ranch southwest of Bellevue.
    Thanks to efforts by the Wood River Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, the ranch could soon become a Fish and Game wildlife management area, open for public recreation and protected in perpetuity from development.
    A proposed agreement presented to the commission Tuesday by Claire Swanger, program coordinator for the county’s Land Water and Wildlife Program, included details on grazing rights, ownership and data reporting, as well as a termination clause that would allow either party to end the agreement at any time.
    “The termination clause is a nonstarter,” Commissioner Larry Schoen said. “There has to be a contractual agreement in case the land or water rights sell. Taxpayer investment must be protected and conservation values not be compromised.”
    Swanger said the county would continue doing its “due diligence” before establishing a grant agreement between the county and the granting agencies. Any agreements would then be reviewed by the Land and Water Levy Board before being put before the commissioners for final funding approval.
    The    ranch has 89 miles of streams and is home to many species, including deer, moose, sage grouse, waterfowl, fish, raptors and pronghorn antelope. 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.
    The commissioners agreed last month to contribute up to $1.1 million from the Land, Water and Wildlife Program toward purchase of the $6 million ranch in order to preserve it for wildlife habitat and recreational access.
    Under a proposed plan, the Rinker family—the owners of the ranch—would also receive $3.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grassland Reserve Program, and $1.1 million from Fish and Game.
    The Wood River Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy would be interim owners, selling the property to the Department of Fish and Game.
    Keri York, senior conservation coordinator for the Land Trust, said in an interview that the Grassland Reserve Program easement would prohibit the department from selling water rights, and would direct the use of water to support livestock grazing and wildlife habitat. She said excess water would be diverted into Rock Creek to support fish habitat.
    “The property has been on our priority list for a number of years,” she said. “This opportunity will provide tremendous public benefit and wildlife habitat. The Wood River Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy are committed to long-term involvement, which could include funding and volunteer support for restoration activities.”
    She said that could include restoration of stream banks and improvements to the sagebrush understory and the riparian corridor.
    “Grazing would be very limited,” she said. “Historically, it was grazed in the riparian corridor. Under the [Grassland Reserve Program], there would be a grazing plan that would strictly limit grazing there.”
    York said the program easement would also prohibit residential buildings and subdivision of the property. She said that after all details are finalized, the Department of Fish and Game would undertake a two-year process to develop a management plan with ample time for public input.
    Rock Creek Ranch is accessible through the Idaho Fish and Game Department’s “Access Yes” program, by foot and horseback only. No camping or fires are allowed.
    Swanger said the Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy play a pivotal role in speeding up the process.
    “Nonprofits often can act faster than a government entity can,” she said.
    Swanger praised the Rinker family for making the preservation of the property possible. Before the plan was made, the property listed for $12.6 million.
    “The Rinkers made a $6.6 million charitable donation to make this happen,” she said.

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