Smooth water lies ahead for Bear River refuge

Published: Saturday, May 24 2008 12:36 a.m. MDT

A pair of pelicans keep watch within the 74,000-acre Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on Friday.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

BRIGHAM CITY — The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge isn't expected to suffer a bit as state and federal agencies work out lingering land ownership issues within the 74,000-acre refuge.

"Whatever happens will be for the benefit of the state of Utah," said Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corinne. "This refuge will remain as a federal migratory refuge."

An agreement signed Friday by both sides in effect says the refuge will remain under federal management while appraisers for Utah and the feds work out the worth of at least 35,000 acres. On paper it gives the right to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the entire refuge despite its makeup of state-owned property.

Officials say it should clear up any past speculation that the state had its eye on controlling or managing part of the refuge.

"This is one of the greatest spots in the world," said USFWS refuge manager Bob Barrett. Others called the refuge the "crown jewel" and a "premier" site among hundreds of bird sanctuaries in the country — there are a handful of state and federal bird refuges in Utah.

State officials said they are hopeful the 35,000 acres, possibly more, will net Utah a fair price, on which no one is willing to speculate. A fund already has been set up if there is a purchase agreement. Not included in the appraisals, however, is the value of water rights already under federal control and improvements made to the refuge over the years.

In lieu of funds coming from Congress for a purchase, the notion of a land swap is also on the table, though no one is ready to say where in the state Utah would gain land from the federal government. In 2001, when a real estate purchase within the refuge seemed imminent, the U.S. Department of the Interior couldn't come up with the money.

Assistant attorney general Stephen Schwendiman was at the refuge Friday to meet with appraisers for both sides. He said the land dispute dates back to a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that favored Utah in a case about whether the state or federal government owned the land under Great Salt Lake. But the ruling did not clear up what or how much each side owned within the refuge.

The refuge attracts about 50,000 visitors a year and is located where the Bear River empties into the northeast arm of Great Salt Lake. It serves as protection for freshwater marshes around the lake, and its wetlands are considered an oasis to tens of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds.

The wetlands have had a rough history, beginning in 1903 when large volumes of the Bear River were diverted for use by settlements and farms. Thousands of acres of marsh dried up. Massive numbers of birds dying due to avian botulism prompted Congress to create the refuge in 1928. By 1931 crews had built 50 miles of dike and water-control structures.

These days, thousands of bird watchers from around the world at the refuge enjoy viewing avocets, pelicans, cinnamon teal, phalaropes, snowy plovers, marbled godwits and black-necked stilts.

A 13-mile road project leading from the visitors center to the refuge's auto tour route is expected to begin in July and result in a three-month road closure. It will cost in excess of $20 million.

More information about the refuge and activities there can be found at www.fws.gov/bearriver.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com

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