Letters from the West

U of I, Nature Conservancy, land trust turn Central Idaho ranch into learning center

Rock Creek Ranch near Hailey is 10,400 acres The Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust bought through a generous below market value deal to keep it forever open by its previous owners Harry Rinker and his family. Now its part of a collaborative effort with the University of Idaho.
Rock Creek Ranch near Hailey is 10,400 acres The Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust bought through a generous below market value deal to keep it forever open by its previous owners Harry Rinker and his family. Now its part of a collaborative effort with the University of Idaho.

The wide-open spaces of the Rock Creek Ranch near Hailey look like Idaho once was. But a remarkable collaboration of the University of Idaho with the Wood River Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy in Idaho could make it the ranch of the future.

The 10,400-acre ranch includes the entire Rock Creek drainage southwest of Hailey. It’s filled with high-quality sagebrush steppe, aspen forest and streamside habitat along Rock Creek. It’s the home of sage grouse as well as summer and winter habitat for elk and mule deer.

It also is a working ranch and will continue as one as its partners work to establish a sustainable rangeland research and educational facility in the heart of Idaho, where ranching, conservation, recreation and education intersect. In 2015 the Idaho Legislature killed the original vision for protecting the open space, which was to turn the ranch into an Idaho Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Management Area.

Even though all of the money would have come from federal taxes on guns, ammunition and sporting goods, the House rejected the sale after the Idaho Fish and Game Commission wrote a guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman complaining about the Legislature’s meddling. That left the Wood River Land Trust, which actually holds the title to the land, holding the bag.

But the group’s executive director, Scott Boettger, and the folks at the Nature Conservancy didn’t see it as a burden.

“This is a great opportunity,” Boettger said, “and a bigger and better project.”

The Harry Rinker family generously sold the ranch to the Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust for under market value, and got an easement from the federal government and tax advantages that required it to continue as a working ranch.

The University of Idaho already had a cattle ranch — the U of I Nancy M. Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center near Salmon. But it was not really like the kind of operation most Idaho ranchers have across the 50 percent of the state that is rangeland, said John Foltz, a special assistant to U of I President Chuck Staben. The Rock Creek Ranch not only has its own deeded range, but also permits to graze another 11,000 acres of state and public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

A memorandum of understanding will be signed and celebrated June 28 at the Rock Creek Ranch, with Gov. Butch Otter joining U of I President Chuck Staben and leaders of the Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust. A brief ceremony will be followed by field tours. Many U of I researchers will be on site for the first time to understand what research opportunities are available.

The university moved 150 head of cattle from the Salmon ranch to Rock Creek, which will be managed by Wyatt Prescott, a U of I alumnus and former executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association. This will allow students and researchers to study grazing and the issues surrounding it, along with how to integrate it better with wildlife and recreational use by the U of I Rangeland Center.

“It fits in our wheelhouse,” said John Foltz, a former dean of the U of I School of Agriculture. “It’s research, teaching and outreach.”

Researchers and students will be able to develop best management practices for the 21st century ranch in a way that shares the land with wildlife, hunters, hikers, cross-country skiers and a community that values open space.

“This is an opportunity to bring these interests and needs together in a way that (they) are not in conflict,” said Toni Hardesty, state director of the conservancy.

This collaboration comes at a critical time for all sides. Few want to see places such as Rock Creek Ranch turned into subdivisions. Ranchers are struggling to address the increasing pressures of society to protect wildlife, water quality and their way of life in a swiftly changing society.

All sides face the disconnection of youth from the natural world and the wildness we all cannot survive without. In addition to students, Rock Creek can be a place where visitors see a working landscape with wild elements. Most of all, what is learned and taught here will spread across the landscape.

The Idaho that once was can be again in a new and sustainable path paved by these partners.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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