Community September 24, 2013
Of Purple Mountains and Halcyon Skies
How A New Era of Land Conservation May Save the West
On the surface, the West is a simple place. At times it seems to be all land and sky. Yet the simplicity of the landscape belies the fact that equally complex and grand efforts are underway to preserve its wild nature.

The notion of conservation came early—in 1872—to a nation that had only 37 states and a giant swath of scarcely explored Rocky Mountain territory. By signing the Act of Dedication, President Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park. Instantly and forever, 2.2 million acres were preserved.

This was the relatively smooth and easy path wilderness and wildlife conservation followed for the next 100 years or so. Acts of Congress ushered along by presidents set aside big chunks of federal land for posterity. President Theodore Roosevelt alone put nearly 230 million acres and 150 national forests under protection.

The Nature Conservancy, Wood River Land Trust, the Idaho Conservation League, government agencies and local ranchers work to negotiate conservation easements to protect pronghorn migration paths, as well as sage grouse, elk (pictured here) and mountain goat habitat in the Gem State. Photo courtesy of Mark Brown.

Conservation efforts in the 21st century have become dramatically more complicated. For one, since the 1862 Homestead Act, the U.S. government has transferred 270 million acres—10% of all U.S. lands—to private landowners in 160-acre parcels. As a result, much of the conservation work being done today less often involves a tract of federal land and an act of Congress and more often requires negotiations between multiple private landowners, advocacy groups and myriad federal and state agencies.

Second, modern conservationists have taken a decidedly wildlife-centric approach to their work, largely because it makes scientific sense. In evaluating conservation projects today, the operative questions fall along the lines of: where are the traditional water flows, habitats and migration routes? Such geography usually transcends property lines, both public and private.
Finally, conservationists have faced head-on the fact that conservation goals can only be achieved while preserving the way of life and livelihood of those who own the land.

This new reality of the conservation terrain has brought to the fore a new tool: the conservation easement. To some, it is an abstract legal concept. To others, it is what will save the West from itself.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement entered into voluntarily by a landowner and a unit of government or land trust. The agreement constrains the owner, and all future owners, from exercising certain rights so as to achieve specified conservation goals. There might be restrictions as to water use, cattle grazing or subdividing property. Generally, the market value of a property will be less after an easement has been placed on it than what it was before the easement. That differential is the value of the easement. Easements can be bought or sold by various entities, held or donated like other assets. There are significant state and federal tax advantages tied to conservation easements as well. 

To see how the new reality of conservation in the West is coming along in Idaho, we’ll take a look at a handful of regional projects.

Saving Chinook Salmon

There is no better example of the intricacies of the modern conservation movement than what is transpiring in the Upper Salmon River drainages, specifically the Pahsimeroi and Lemhi valleys. It is a story that began 40 years ago.

On December 28, 1973, an unlikely environmental proponent, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). For the first time, the ESA set out a framework for identifying and “listing” species in danger of becoming extinct. What’s more, the act established in legal terms the connection between wildlife habitat and species survival. The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service were charged with not only recovering and maintaining populations of species on the ESA “list,” but also protecting critical habitat that enabled recovery.

Chinook (king) salmon are an ESA endangered anadromous fish that travel from the Pacific Ocean up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon rivers to spawn in the tributaries of the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi rivers. After hatching, the juvenile fish live in fresh water for 12 to 18 months before returning more than 900 miles to the ocean.

A horseback rider crosses Lava Lake Ranch. Photo Courtesy of Ami Vitale.

As to why the fish are on the edge of extinction has been fiercely debated for decades. Two likely culprits are the hydroelectric power dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, as well as the diminished and damaged spawning grounds in the Upper Salmon area (Pahsimeroi and Lemhi rivers). Many conservationists argue that the dams slow the water down such that the trip back to the ocean is often not survivable. However, removing the dams and returning the river flow to its original state has not been a political reality to date.

The Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets the electricity from the dams, instead has provided, by order of the Snake River Basin Adjudication—an agreement among the U.S. government, the Nez Perce Tribe and the State of Idaho—millions of dollars to address the second problem, restoring the fish habitat in the upper end.

Horseback riders cross some of the 75,000 acres of Lava Lake Ranch that have been permanently protected with conservation easements. Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale.And this is where organizations like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Lemhi Regional Land Trust step in to work with private landowners and government agencies. Mark Davidson, who until recently was the central Idaho conservation manager for TNC, explained to me that the drivers for fish recovery are “improving the water flow and eliminating migration barriers, such as diversion structures and culverts. This might be as simple as adding a screen to a ditch that would prevent fish from swimming into the fields and becoming fertilizer.”

In 2003, when Davidson first began working in the area, the Chinook were traveling only 13 river miles up the Pahsimeroi River from the confluence with the Salmon River. Virtually all of the tributaries to the Pahsimeroi and Lemhi rivers were dry or disconnected from their main stems. The degraded habitat was also impacting threatened steelhead and bull trout.

Landscape at the Lava Lake Ranch region near Hailey. Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale.TNC and Davidson’s first deal to start rebuilding a river network in the Pahsimeroi Valley was to purchase the 1,800-acre Alderspring Ranch. As owner, TNC put a conservation easement on the property that improved water flows into the Pahsimeroi River. They also sold off 200 of the river acres to Idaho Fish and Game. TNC then sold the ranch—at a much-reduced price due to the easement on the property—to Glenn and Caryl Elzinga, a ranching family willing to run their business with the restrictions.

“This deal was the first of its kind in the landscape,” Davidson said.  “And we were able to demonstrate to the locals that we weren’t there to put everyone out of production. We were trying to find some sort of balance between resource need and human use.”

Kids of all ages enjoy the Boardwalk at the Hailey Greenway. Photo courtesy of the Wood River Land Trust

While there are many variations of what might be included in a conservation easement—water management practices, development restrictions, grazing practices, rules for timber harvesting are some—the Alderspring Ranch deal became a model of sorts for many to come in the valley. Davidson pointed out that between the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi valleys, over 12,000 acres have been put under conservation easements. And, he said, there is the potential to include another 40,000 acres in the near term.

Tom Page, a Hailey resident, bought property in the Pahsimeroi Valley in part because of the opportunity to make conservation gains. Page and his brother, Michael, control—between deeded property and grazing allotments—nearly 150 square miles in the valley (96,000 acres). Last year he put 1,700 acres of his Big Creek Ranch under a conservation easement. A conservation easement on another 5,700 acres will close this year, which, Davidson said, will likely double the Chinook habitat in the region.

Page detailed what he sees as the key elements of conservation projects today: “infrastructure, legal protection and habitat restoration.” The first involves improving irrigation systems and headgates, adding fish screens to diversions, moving from flood irrigation to closed systems—essentially improving efficiency through good practices.

Pahsimeroi Valley in all its glory. Photo courtesy of Mark Brown.

The conservation easement “codifies all of those best practices, whether having to do with grazing practices … or agreements with the neighbors as to when certain water ditches will be closed during the year.” Needless to say, the easements are complex legal documents involving, among other things, water rights, property lines, diversion gates, grazing schedules and in-stream flows.

Finally, fish habitat restoration involves physically reconnecting tributaries to the main stem of a river, perhaps through excavation or simply re-watering—negotiating with landowners to put water back into dry tributaries.

The difficulty is not lost on Page. “All of the easy stuff has been done,” he told me. “The fact that private landholders are using these conservation easement tools on such a large scale makes people nervous.”

The real sticking point is water. As Page put it, the question comes down to: “Is water better spread out for irrigation or does it have value in the river? If you think there is value, and you are getting paid for that value (via selling a conservation easement) as part of your business model for your ranch, well, some people really disagree with that.”

Looming over all of this activity is, of course, the Endangered Species Act.
“In the Upper Salmon, the misconception is that it’s a bunch of redneck ranchers over there,” Davidson told me. “The reality is that these guys are really thinking hard about how do we survive in light of the fact that the ESA hovers over everything we do … that the U.S. government could swoop in and shut them down on a ‘take’ (violation of the ESA).”

Ultimately, Davidson, TNC and the landowners want to see the ranches be ranches. “We’re talking about the ranchers’ livelihood, how they send their kids to college, or put food on the table,” Davidson said. “So, we have to structure a deal that enables them to produce crops, to maintain their livelihood.”

Watersheds of the Wood River Valley

In south central Idaho, specifically the Wood River Valley, conservation efforts have more to do with the threat of development than with endangered species recovery.  The model example is Silver Creek Preserve. In 1976, with the help of Jack Hemingway, then commissioner of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and Bill Janss, owner of the property, TNC was able to purchase 479 acres along Silver Creek. 

Dayna Gross, Silver Creek watershed manager, said that in the 1980s TNC realized that owning the property was not enough to protect the full scope of the diverse ecosystem. So the organization began using conservation easements on lands surrounding the preserve as a means to protect the whole watershed. “We focused on the fish,” Gross said. “Because, if you focus on the fish, you take care of so many other species—the wetland birds, the insects, the trumpeter swans, Virginia rails and soras.”

“We focused on the fish. Because, if you focus on the fish, you take care of so many other species—the wetland birds, the insects, the trumpeter swans, Virginia rails, and soras.”—Dayna Gross, Silver Creek watershed manager. Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale.

John and Elizabeth Stevenson donated the first easement neighboring the preserve. Bud Purdy followed the Stevensons’ lead by donating an easement on 3,400 acres (both ranchers have subsequently added more acreage). To date, over 12,000 acres surrounding the preserve have been protected through easements. In addition, another 300 or so acres were purchased by TNC, which increased their deeded acreage to 851 acres. TNC has been involved with another very large project on the Heart Rock Ranch, owned by Shirley and Harry Hagey. The ranch is near the intersection of State Highways 20 and 75.

Art Talsma, director of stewardship and restoration for TNC, described it as “…the largest stream and wetland restoration project on private land in the state of Idaho.” The ranch itself is approximately 5,000 acres, with wetlands, riparian cottonwood corridors and grasslands. The ranch includes an additional 20,000 acres of grazing allotments (on BLM land).

Ducks Unlimited, TNC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private contractors were involved in restoring wetlands, planting shade cover, and restoring Crystal Creek, a tributary of the Big Wood River. Concurrently, the Hageys placed over 2,000 acres into a conservation easement, which they donated to TNC, according to Talsma.

Scott Boettger, executive director of the Wood River Land Trust (WRLT), believes that this type of collaboration among the conservation groups is critical to success. The complexity of the projects, Boettger told me, requires the ability to leverage the expertise and funding sources of many organizations, including the Blaine County Land, Water and Wildlife Program, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, the Sawtooth Society, TNC and the Idaho Conservation League, among others. With collaboration, Boettger said, “We have a real opportunity to be proactive in protecting the heart of the valley.”

One of the Land Trust’s more prominent projects is the acquisition of the Draper Wood River Preserve in Hailey and the construction of the Bow pedestrian bridge, which connects the east and west sections of the preserve. The preserve comprises 85 acres, a half-mile of riverfront, and connects the Lions Park area to the Croy Creek Wetland Boardwalk, another Land Trust project. “We try to look for projects that will have high recreational benefit while having a lower development value,” Boettger said.

The Land Trust also recently completed a large and complicated deal in the Pioneer Mountains. WLRT purchased 1,610 acres of sagebrush-steppe habitat, renaming it the Timbered Dome Preserve. Working with a neighboring landowner, the WLRT was able get a total of 3,580 acres under a conservation easement.

Protecting Pronghorns

 A third front in the Idaho conservation effort is in the Pioneer Mountains–Craters of the Moon landscape, a 2.4 million-acre mosaic of federal, state and private land. TNC, WRLT, the Idaho Conservation League, government agencies and local ranchers are working to negotiate conservation easements in the area. The goal is to protect pronghorn migration paths, as well as sage grouse, elk and mountain goat habitat.

Toni Hardesty, TNC’s state director, said that there have been approximately 70,000 acres of easements in the region. While there has been success, Hardesty doesn’t underestimate the difficulties in doing this kind of work. Not only do they try to protect species in a given area, but they also have “scientists trying to predict how the geography of those habitats will change as the climate changes.” So there is the added problem of trying to protect wildlife habitats that are dynamic.

Photo courtesy of Mark Brown.

Another challenge is the complexity of the conservation easements themselves. “The tools we have are great tools, but they take time to understand and for people to get comfortable with,” she said, adding, “funding is always a challenge for these very large scale projects.”

And large is the operative term here. As always in the West, it comes back to scale. Conservationists are trying to stitch together an enormous landscape that, by virtue of the Homestead Act and a young nation’s desire to tame its frontier, is fragmented by property lines, water rights and development interests. Throw on top of that the matrix of the Endangered Species Act and legal obligations to Native Americans who first lived on the land, and the challenge becomes daunting. Progress is slow.

But it is happening. Ranchers are surviving economic difficulties. They are staying on the land. Fish are finding new tributaries and spawning grounds. Elk and pronghorn are migrating great distances again. Acre by acre the West is becoming whole again.

This article appears in the Fall 2013 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.