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Conservation Comes to West's Vanishing Range

Easements can keep the land rural and help cash-strapped farmers. Millions of acres, and a way of life, are at risk as subdivisions encroach.

June 22, 2003|Dan Gallagher | Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho — Who wouldn't like to have a cabin and small acreage along a world-famous fishing stream like the Henry's Fork of the Snake River?

Few would turn down the chance, and that's part of the problem.

John Nedrow is like many Western farmers and ranchers who've struggled for years with poor prices for crops or calves. For many, the solution has been to sell their land to developers eager to turn it into condominiums, 10-acre "ranchette" summer homes or golf courses.

But Nedrow agreed to a conservation easement for his Henry's Fork riverside property, the first of its kind in Idaho. He receives some money for trading away his development rights. He owns his land and can sell it, but the easement continues to apply. The property remains agricultural, open and scenic.

"Farming has been rough," he said. "If we're careful, we'll have a comfortable retirement."

His predicament is common across the West. The American Farmland Trust estimates that more than 5 million acres of Idaho's best ranchland are at risk of vanishing through development by 2020. Montana is the front-runner in the West, with 5.1 million acres in danger. Colorado is third with about 4.8 million.

The trust's map of endangered Idaho ranchland shows valleys with sweeping mountain views or creek-side access -- both in supply in Teton County and the Henry's Fork Basin, around McCall and the Panhandle's lakes.

"For someone living in the city who wants to do something other than farm, farmland is cheap," said Don Stuart, American Farmland's Northwest director. "They're used to a 50-foot-by-100-foot lot costing $100,000; they think they're doing great with this new property. But the impact on agriculture is they fragment the land."

The rural community pays for the new residents. Stuart said a study in Washington's Skagit Valley in the late 1990s found that for every property tax dollar received from residences, local government paid out $1.25 for services. For ranchland or forest, it paid out 51 cents.

The Nature Conservancy and other groups have arranged easements throughout Idaho, protecting priceless spots such as Silver Creek near Sun Valley, a portion of Thousand Springs on the Snake River and the Garden Creek Ranch in Hells Canyon.

The Teton Regional Land Trust, based in Driggs, has preserved more than 14,000 acres of agricultural land and is working on another 6,000 acres in eastern Idaho's growing areas.

"Our main objectives are to protect agricultural land for production and protect natural land for fish and wildlife values," said Michael Whitfield, the trust's executive director.

"With our landowners, their property is worth a tremendous amount of money for development. But they want to retain their property. We try to find ways to cash in some of the value.

"In a lot of cases, they've been able to get some income for retirement. They still keep the value in the land. The easement doesn't strip it away."

By the end of 2002, 57 families had worked with the Teton trust to preserve their land. Some had donated the easements, while the trust had organized fund-raisers to help others financially to clinch the deal.

The Teton trust and U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service hammered out the first federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program easement in Idaho for 318 acres owned by the Nedrow family. The government put up matching money. Whitfield's nonprofit group arranged the rest through the Conservation Fund / Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. An easement for another 300-acre block of Nedrow land is being worked out through another program.

Nedrow said his father bought the land beginning in the 1940s. One son is considering going into farming. "Generosity wasn't the prime factor," Nedrow said. "Without some kind of reimbursement, we wouldn't have done it. With the money, it made it worth our while."

"Whatever he says, the Nedrow family is the salt of the Earth," said Kim Goodman with the Teton trust. The price of Henry's Fork easement land is running about $600 an acre, but Goodman said the family settled for far less.

Nedrow still would like to preserve his area's rural character from all those who want their little piece of it. "It won't be too long until there will be a house on every spot and they'll be headed my way," he said. "But I'll still be here on my riverfront property."

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