Two weeks in the West

by Jodi Peterson

Updated 2/4/2008

A groan must have risen from some Western developers at the end of last year, as a flurry of conservation easements yanked hundreds of thousands of acres out of their reach. The rush was at least partly due to a federal tax incentive that expired at the end of 2007. (Congress is considering an extension.)

Landowners from Tucson to Missoula gave up development rights in favor of preserving their properties for agriculture, wildlife and open space. Some of the notable deals made around the region in December and January: In Montana, federal dollars will purchase easements on about 7,800 acres in the Blackfoot Basin. The easements are the latest success of the Blackfoot Community Project, which aims to conserve about 89,000 acres of former Plum Creek Timber Company property.

Along the state's Rocky Mountain Front, rancher Colin Phipps donated a 2,900-acre easement. On the Flathead River, Glenn Johnston donated nearly 700 acres, including islands and riverfront property, while the Siderius family put an easement on another 670 acres. Farther south, Peggy Dulany protected 8,500 acres of her J Bar L Ranch, which adjoins Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

California, already a leader in easements, gained even more protected land. The families of high-tech moguls Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard donated development rights on the San Felipe Ranch - roughly 28,000 acres, the size of the city of San Francisco. It joins more than 400,000 already-preserved acres east of San Jose, around Mount Hamilton.

Also in California, a 190-acre historic farm in Pescadero will grow pumpkins and Brussels sprouts instead of condos, while 3,200 acres west of Gonzales, near Highway 101, will remain a working ranch. In Paso Robles, the 150-acre Turley Vineyard joins a "purple belt" meant to preserve wine country. And Humboldt County investors and conservation groups are working on an epic easement that would manage 197,000 acres of redwood forests for timber and put aside another 12,000 acres for marbled murrelets and tailed frogs.

In Arizona, The Nature Conservancy bought the last big chunk of private land - 312 acres - along the Upper Verde River. The landowners also donated easements on another 2,600 acres upland. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve, slated to cover 36,400 acres near metropolitan Scottsdale, inched closer to its goal with a new 10-acre easement.

In southern Colorado, a 1,600-acre easement in Rio Grande County will protect more than two miles of the banks of the Rio Grande. In San Miguel County, 640- and 400-acre easements preserve ranchland and shelter the imperiled Gunnison sage grouse and Canada lynx.

To ease more landowners into easements, the Idaho Legislature is expected to again consider a tax-break bill that would give ranchers and timberland owners a state income tax credit equal to half the appraised value of the lands they protect. Colorado, one of the only Western states that offers tax credits for easements, acted to reduce abuses of its system with tighter standards and reporting requirements that went into effect Jan. 1.

On other fronts, powderhounds - motorized and non-motorized - have been interacting with wildlife, sometimes for good, and sometimes not. Wasatch Powderbird Guides faced down an enviro lawsuit that claimed the company's helicopters and avalanche-control bombs shatter the silence and scare wildlife in national forests outside Salt Lake City; a federal judge allowed the heli-skiing business to continue. Several hundred miles east, a Forest Service study shows that backcountry skiers and snowmobilers on Colorado's Vail Pass are crowding out threatened Canada lynx. On the other hand, in southern Colorado, 250 volunteer sledheads and two-plankers rallied to bring feed to thousands of starving deer, trapped by deep snow and severe cold in the Gunnison Basin.

A bit more good news - maybe. A ceasefire in the Klamath Basin, home to one of the West's fiercest water wars, once seemed as likely as peace in the Middle East. But a new billion-dollar agreement, hammered out by a consortium of tribes, fishermen, conservation groups, irrigators and government agencies, might be the equivalent of a plan for sharing Jerusalem. The deal would knock down four dams, restore salmon populations, let farmers irrigate, and provide cheap power. The struggles on the Klamath, which straddles the Oregon-California border, have lasted for more than a decade, producing furious farmers, huge fish kills and angry anglers. California's Hoopa Valley Tribe and some environmental groups say the consensus deal still diverts too much water to farmers. And the dam removal, which could begin as early as 2015 and would be the largest ever in the nation, depends on an agreement with dam owner PacifiCorp and half a billion dollars in federal funding.

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