Bear River plan aims to preserve watershed, agriculture in 3 states

Published: Friday, Nov. 30 2012 4:31 p.m. MST

The Left Hand and Right Hand forks of the Bear River converge at this spot in the High Uintas.

Roger Arave, Deseret News

LOGAN  — A series of six public meetings in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho will be held in December to detail a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy conservation easements along the 500-mile stretch of the Bear River.

The watershed conservation plan, still in draft form, envisions purchasing or receiving up to 920,000 acres from wiling sellers at an estimated cost of $745 million.

From its headwaters in the Uinta Mountains in Utah, the Bear River flows north through southwestern Wyoming and into Idaho before completing its horseshoe-shaped route at the Great Salt Lake.

Along the way, the river system passes through three national wildlife refuges and provides critical wetland and upland habitat for vast variety of species, in addition to serving as a crucial migratory corridor connecting the southern and northern Rocky Mountains for grizzly, elk and deer.

The river is also critical habitat for the Bonneville cutthroat trout, and the entire watershed area supports more than 270 species of migratory birds as they travel the Central and Pacific flyways.

Much of the low-lying areas within the proposed watershed protection area encompass farm and ranch lands that also provide wildlife habitat, but much of the agricultural property is succumbing to residential development and increasing urban encroachment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted.

In its environmental assessment of the conservation plan, the agency noted that in 2000, the American Farmland Trust identified 3.4 million acres in Utah as being vulnerable to low-density residential development by the 2020, with ranch lands located in high mountain valleys and mixed grasslands surrounding the Rocky Mountains at the highest risk of conversion.

Within that Rocky Mountain region, Utah's Summit County ranked among the top 25 for acres of strategic farmland at risk.

The service notes that multiple efforts by a variety of groups have already worked to preserve key areas within the watershed area, such as the involvement of The Nature Conservancy to purchase a 6,700-acre easement for the protection of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and other species along the East Fork of the Bear.

The organization has also been involved in an aggressive invasive weed control program in Cache County.

Joan Degiorgio, regional director for The Nature Conservancy, said the beauty of the federal proposal is that it will help protect an often overlooked but critical watershed area.

"I call the Bear River the Rodney Dangerfield of rivers, versus the Colorado and the Green, which have lot more sex appeal than the Bear does," she said. "The Bear has always been important for supply of agricultural water and as a hydropower source, but it has been behind as a conservation priority."

Because most of the land along the river is held privately and is used for farming and ranching, Degiorgio said it is critical for the federal government and others to work with those landowners on a willing basis to preserve critical watershed areas.

"Conservation easements didn't used to be popular, but people are really changing their minds about them," she said.

The Utah Farm Bureau has been involved in providing its input on the plan and is supportive of conservation easements, said spokesman Matt Hargreaves.

Under the federal proposal, easement land would remain in private ownership, allowing the property to stay on local tax rolls and still generate revenue for county government.

Owners would still pay property taxes and retain control of access to the land, but conservation easement contracts would impose prohibitions such as alteration of land topography, conversion of natural grasslands to croplands and drainage of wetlands.

Under the contracts, grazing would not be restricted.

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