Though the Idaho Department of Fish and Game surprised the public Tuesday by withdrawing its request for $1.1 million from Blaine County’s Land, Water and Wildlife fund, purchase of the Rock Creek Ranch and creation of a wildlife management area there are expected to proceed as planned.
Formerly owned by the Rinker family, the 10,400-acre property southwest of Hailey is temporarily owned by the Wood River Land Trust as part of a complex arrangement to turn it over to public use. The final step was to be a $2.2 million payment, split between the county and the department.
A county commissioners meeting scheduled for Tuesday night to consider a draft agreement for the purchase was abruptly canceled that afternoon.
Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler said the department decided to expedite the process by funding the purchase on its own. He said that as far as he knows, the decision had nothing to do with conditions on management of the property proposed by Blaine County.
“This came down to just wanting to move the process along,” he said.
Keckler said the additional $1.1 million will come from one of two sources—a $40 million habitat mitigation grant from the Bonneville Power Administration or money raised through a federal tax on firearms and ammunition production. The money collected is distributed to the states to protect wildlife habitat. Keckler said more money has been raised than was anticipated due to recent strong sales of guns and ammunition.
County Commissioner Larry Schoen said that even though he’s pleased that the Land, Water and Wildlife fund will save $1.1 million, he’s disappointed that the deal fell through.
“A lot of time and effort has gone into a project that has widespread support in Blaine County,” he said.
Schoen said he thought the deal was almost finalized.
“I thought the [county’s and department’s] documents were extremely close and the outstanding issues would be resolved in very short order,” he said. “I thought we were pretty much there. I was frustrated by the sudden withdrawal of the application.”
Clare Swanger, project coordinator for the Land, Water and Wildlife program, said Fish and Game representatives had on numerous occasions expressed discomfort with the public process involved with hammering out a management agreement. She said an open process was required for the expenditure of the public fund, which 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.
However, she said, the program was meant to provide matching funds for projects that would not otherwise be completed.
“The $1.1 million remains available for other great conservation projects in the county,” she said. “This is a great outcome for the citizens of Blaine County.
“The commissioners were excited about this and wanted to be a part of it, but from my perspective, this route was a little simpler for Fish and Game. The vast majority of what the county commissioners wanted is going to occur anyway.”
Keckler said the department intends to create a wildlife management area on the property as soon as possible. He said a management plan will be drafted for approval by the Fish and Game Commission with opportunities for input from the public and the county.
Swanger said she encourages people who care about the area to get involved in that process.