Protective easement on Zumwalt pursued by Nature Conservancy

<I>Elane Dickenson/Chieftain</I><BR>Phil Shephard (left) of The Nature Conservancy presents a proposal for a conservation easement, as Wallowa County Board of Commissioners chairman Mike Hayward listens.

A conservation easement proposed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) on approximately 5,600 acres just south of its Zumwalt Prairie Preserve would have multiple goals, including protecting the property from development, protecting a plant on the endangered species list, and protecting wildlife habitat.

At the same time, traditional activities, such as cattle grazing, would continue, according to local stewardship director Phil Shephard in a discussion with the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners on Monday morning.

Shephard said that, under the proposal, TNC would purchase the easement - to be part of the deed in the future - from property owner Bruce Hampton, who would continue to own and use the land. There would be a management plan worked out between the landowner and the conservancy.

"We wanted to check with you," said Shephard, who said he thought the board might be more agreeable to a conservation easement, which would keep the property in private ownership, than to an outright purchase by TNC. "If you did think it was a reasonable idea ... to work toward some sort of letter of endorsement."

Shephard said funding for the project, up to $500,000 for a half match, would come from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the conservancy was planning to apply to Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board for the remainder.

The exact cost, he said, is unknown until the property is appraised. The easement cost would be the difference between what the property is worth developed and undeveloped.

"We'd be purchasing the development rights," Shephard said.

"What are the public benefits?" the commissioners asked.

Shephard listed a number of potential benefits, including much less stress on county resources for such things as roads if the property was developed; compatibility with the Nez Perce/Wallowa County salmon plan; protection of the watershed; protection of an endangered species (Spalding's catchfly); and enabling a private landowner to stay on his property without subdividing it.

"You've pretty well sanded off my objections," commissioner Ben Boswell said.

Commissioner Dan DeBoie said he is still struggling with the "bigger picture," such as the easement locking management for the property for decades into the future. Shephard said a plan for management of such activities as grazing and timber harvest, as well as other general issues, would be worked out "between the landowner and the holder of the easement," and attached to the legal easement contract as an addendum, which could be modified in the future.

DeBoie also questioned the use of public funds for the project. However, board chairman Mike Hayward countered by saying that, if the conservation objectives are for the public good, then the use of public money is appropriate.

Shephard said there should be no change in taxation on the property. He said he also planned to present the proposal to the Wallowa County Stockgrowers and the Wallowa County Natural Resource Advisory Committee.

Hayward said that the commissioners would like to hear what those groups had to say, but were inclined to endorse the project "unless we hear something we haven't thought of yet."

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