Caring for big game habitat

The Central Oregonian reports on one of the Land Trust's projects near Post.
By Jason Chaney
Central Oregonian

Local rancher Jim Wood was looking for a way to ensure that land on his 15,696-acre ranch would keep providing habitat for different big game.

However, accomplishing that goal, which includes juniper removal or riparian work near waterways, comes with a high cost. In addition, there was no guarantee that his Aspen Valley Ranch, located near Post, would stay completely intact into the future when new owners at some point take over the land. Another owner, theoretically, could take the ranch property and break it apart into smaller parcels and create a subdivision, a change that would prove detrimental for elk, deer and pronghorn that are averse to such interruptions.

"They need protected space, not a lot of disturbance," explains Greg Jackle, district biologist with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "They don't like to see a lot of roads or activity."

The answer, Wood discovered, is a conservation easement.

A conservation easement is essentially an agreement reached between the landowner and a land trust organization.

"We reach an agreement effectively on permanent management of that area. We want to keep that area intact as one unit, so that it can't be sold off and separately parceled," said Brad Nye, with Deschutes Land Trust. "Once that's done, the land trust's job is to maintain compliance with that conservation easement, whether that owner is Jim Wood or someone five steps down the line."

Wood is entering an agreement with Deschutes Land Trust to establish a conservation easement pilot project on 3,800 acres of his ranch property. The program is completely voluntary, and the landowner continues to possess the property, and typical working ranch activities can continue on the land such as cattle grazing.

"What the landowner gets in exchange is some payment for the reduced value of land because it has this permanent restriction on what it can be used for," said Hugh Morrison with Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts. "It changes the tax value of the land."

The funding was not always available for conservation easements, which has prevented Wood from reaching an agreement. That recently changed, Kelley Beamer with Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts said, when Gov. Kate Brown recently signed the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program into law. The new state effort is intended to match the Natural Resources Conservation Services' federal Agricultural Land Easement Program, which is funded through the Farm Bill.

"The reason we have not been able to do one to date is because of the lack of funding," Morrison said. "It just wasn't there."

Wood invited about 30 people last week to take a tour of his ranch and other neighboring areas to help demonstrate the importance of the conservation easements for big game habitat. Representatives from two U.S. senators and Crook County government attended, as did personnel from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Central Oregon Land Watch and OSU Extension Service.

Among the six tour stops was the 3,800-acre future site of the easement, where Wood showcased a large portion of land that was already cleared of juniper and uninterrupted by roads and houses.

"What impressed me was that area had about 800 to 1,000 wintering elk," Jackle said of the property. "When you see that, it is pretty spectacular."

Beamer told the tour visitors that such easements will become critical in the years ahead, stating that Oregon is in the middle of "a significant intergenerational land transfer."

"In the next 20 years, about two thirds of our farm and ranch lands will change hands. This is about 10 million acres in Oregon and that land contains some of the most important farm and ranch family operations that continue to improve our economy but also really improve habitat and public values," she said. "So these private conservation projects are really critical, and the programs that support them are really critical."

Nye acknowledges that conservation easements don't make sense for every landowner, but he hopes that Wood's pilot project will make the idea more appealing to ranchers in the future.

"We hope in doing some more work here, we can attract more interest from landowners and more funding from funders to do more work," he said.