Friday, July 4, 2014

Future of Rock Creek Ranch outlined

Fish and Game to own large south-county parcel

Express Staff Writer

Rock Creek Ranch covers a wide expanse of land southwest of Hailey.
Courtesy map

     A draft conservation agreement for a proposed Rock Creek Wildlife Management Area provides for perpetual involvement by Blaine County and two conservation organizations in setting management policy with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The agreement also states that grazing shall continue in a way that protects wildlife habitat, and that public access shall be forever guaranteed.

     A public hearing was held Tuesday at the Community Campus to help finalize the complex land deal expected to soon transfer ownership of the 10,400-acre property southwest of Hailey to Fish and Game. The ranch, previously owned by the Rinker family, is under temporary ownership of the Wood River Land Trust, and the transfer is contingent upon approval by the county commissioners of a $1.1 million expenditure from the county’s Land, Water and Wildlife fund to pay half of the sales price. That would be added to $1.1 million provided by the Department of Fish and Game.

     Money in the fund was raised through a two-year, $3.4 million assessment on county property taxes passed by voters in 2008 to help protect clean water, wildlife habitat and open space. Applications for the grants are reviewed by a Levy Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the county commissioners,

     The commissioners reached no decision Tuesday on the Land Trust’s application, and they directed that the nine-page draft conservation agreement be further reviewed by Fish and Game as well as by the Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, which each provided half the $2.2 million to buy the property from the Rinkers. Those entities will submit proposed revisions to the Levy Advisory Board for its review. No date has been set for a decision by the commissioners.

     The Idaho Fish and Game Commission is expected to approve purchase of the property from the Land Trust during a meeting in Salmon on July 10. Gregg Servheen, the department’s official in charge of land acquisition, said the commissioners fully support the project.

     The department’s $1.1 million expenditure would be in federal funds raised through the Pittman-Robertson Act, which since 1937 has authorized a tax on the production of firearms and ammunition. The money collected is distributed to the states to protect wildlife habitat.

     The draft conservation agreement directs the department to create a planning committee to advise it during development of a management plan for the area. The committee is to include representatives from the county, the Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the public, and is to remain operational as long as Fish and Game owns the property.

     “With a property as complex as this, you’re not going to have a management plan that’s going to be the plan for the next 50 years,” County Commissioner Larry Schoen said. “The county will always have a role, and we will change and adapt as conditions warrant.”

     Much discussion during the sparsely attended, two-hour public meeting Tuesday revolved around livestock grazing. Picabo Livestock Co. holds a grazing lease on the property.

     While still under the Rinkers’ ownership, the ranch was placed under a conservation easement bought for $3.8 million by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service through its Grassland Reserve Program, whose intent is to maintain pasture land. However, Keri York, senior conservation coordinator with the Wood River Land Trust, told meeting attendees that the easement does not require grazing to be carried out every year or to the maximum extent possible. She said management will prioritize protection of sage grouse habitat, which covers virtually the entire property.

     Lou Lunte, deputy director of The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, said grazing does not have to be the dominant use.

     “We’re going to find a way to manage it in a way that’s compatible with other uses,” he said.

     York said Rock Creek is now entirely fenced off from cattle, and the fence will remain for at least the next year. She said decisions as to whether to keep the full length of the fence intact will be made as long-term grazing plans are developed.

     The draft agreement states that grazing management plans must require a grazing lessee “to contribute to wildlife conservation, avoid livestock-predator conflicts and minimize predator depredation on livestock by employing various predator deterrence and conflict avoidance measures at all times. …”  It prohibits the Department of Fish and Game from authorizing the killing of predators unless the lessee shows that deterrence measures were used properly but failed.

     “The county will have certain terms and conditions of its own, and predator management is one of those,” Schoen said.

     That issue elicited one of the few comments of disagreement expressed during the meeting.

     “I don’t think it should be the county’s dictating to [Fish and Game] what they should do or what tools they should use,” said Bellevue resident John DeLorenzo. “I’m not saying I’m always in favor of lethal control, but it should not be taken out of the toolbox. This is a big issue to a lot of people in Blaine County, especially in the south valley.”

     Discussion at the meeting also addressed public access. Levy Advisory Board member Tom Page said recreation is not part of the board’s charter, but “it’s one of the things that we hear about as to why people supported the levy.”

     The draft agreement directs Fish and Game to create a public access easement as part of the management plan. The easement would remain in effect if the department ever sells the land. Access would be subordinate to protecting wildlife and habitat.

     Schoen suggested an arrangement more flexible than an easement, though Page said that if the county owns the easement, it can decide when to enforce it. Commissioner Angenie McCleary said she supported the agreement’s language, but would remain open to further discussion on the subject.

     A three-page notice of obligations to be signed in connection with the conservation agreement states that if Fish and Game ever sells the property, the proceeds shall be distributed among the department, Blaine County and the Wood River Land Trust.

     County resident Pam Morris, publisher of the Idaho Mountain Express, asked whether the agreement could be changed to state that if the department were to relinquish ownership, the property would revert to the county and the Land Trust.

     “I don’t think we’ve ruled anything out,” Schoen said. “That and other issues will be considered as the documents are finalized.”

     Fish and Game land official Servheen pointed out that since purchase of the property is to be funded partly with federal funds, the department would need permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before it could sell it.

     Discussion at the meeting also touched on water rights. The property includes 89 miles of streams.

     The draft agreement states that Fish and Game will develop a water management plan consistent with the NRCS easement and the Land, Water and Wildlife Program goals. The county, the Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy are to be included in creating that plan. The document states that water management “may” provide for habitat enhancement.

     Levy Project Coordinator Clare Swanger said the NRCS conservation easement requires 10 percent of the ranch’s water to remain on the property, but the rest could be sold. York said the Land Trust still needs to discuss with the NRCS and the Levy Advisory Board about how to address water rights. She said the easement requires approval of the NRCS for any application to the Idaho Department of Water Resources for a change in water rights.

     Despite the fact that work remains to be done before the Rock Creek Ranch project is finalized, those involved appeared optimistic about its success in the near future.

     “Protection of this property is a dream come true for all our organizations,” York said.

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