A demand exists in Northern Utah, and the Bear River Land Conservancy hopes to meet it.
Since the conservancy was launched in 2011, applications from landowners seeking easement protection have poured in from all corners of Cache Valley. Whether the property that owners hope to protect from development is in agriculture, has some recreational or scenic value, or protects a watershed or other natural resource, the goal is the same: Keep the land as it is.
“We knew there was a need for a land trust in the northern part of the state because there wasn’t anybody who deals with facilitation of easements in this area,” said Dave Rayfield, a founding member and chairman of the Bear River Land Conservancy board. “So we founded a land trust.”
It was easier conceived than done — the process of incorporation took more than a year and required the dedicated efforts of many people, for whom the work essentially “became like having a third job,” according to Rayfield.
However upon completion of their first project, the 500-acre Bear River Bottoms, public interest was piqued. The conservancy recently completed two more projects: One in Rich County that will be formally announced in the spring, and another in Mendon.
The Mendon Meadow Preserve, as it is called, is a 30-acre piece of pasture land that provides habitat for Ute ladies’-tresses, an orchid listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Rayfield described the property as “wet meadow,” which is just the type of land Betsy Herrmann had been hoping to preserve.
Herrmann, a project ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2008 had been working on a pipeline that passed through habitat of the rare orchid. At the time the Mendon site was the only known population of Ute ladies’ tresses in Cache County (two other patches have since been discovered.)
A donor who asked to remain anonymous stepped forward to pay the bulk of the cost to acquire the Mendon piece, and after jumping through the requisite hoops, the Bear River Land Conservancy had its second property. In this case the group purchased that land outright.
“We approached the conservancy and they did the legwork,” Herrmann said. “We are excited about this acquisition and hope it helps to recover the species.”
This particular orchid is found in eight states and in Canada, and is primarily limited to wet meadows and stream riparian zones. In Utah it is mostly found in the northern part of the state.
The FWS and BRLC are working to develop a management plan for the site. In order to have the orchid delisted, private citizens will have to help identify and protect its populations.
“A lot of these habitats (of the Ute ladies’-tresses) are under private ownership, so we are hoping to increase interest and awareness among landowners,” Hermann said.
This is exactly the sort of project that the conservancy’s board of directors — Rayfield, Mark Brunson, Bryan Dixon, Nat Frazer, Nathan Hult, Keith Meikle, Bryce Nielson, Laraine Swenson and Paul Willie — had in mind. The BRLC was created not as an advocate but as a preservation tool. That is an important distinction in cases such as the Bear River Bottoms, which were owned by Rocky Mountain Power. The Nature Conservancy would have seemed a natural fit to handle that easement, but the national organization could not agree to avoid advocating against power generation.
The Bridgerland Audubon Society briefly stepped in to manage the Bottoms, but didn’t have the resources to continue that, so local volunteers created the BRLC. Since then the group has been raising funds and identifying projects that meet their criteria, which include weighing potential for wildlife habitat, the owners’ intentions, whether there is farm or ranch use and the recreational or historical significance, among other things.
“We’re trying to represent all worlds, so we don’t advocate,” Rayfield said. “We’re here to facilitate easements for all the right reasons.”
That has lead to partnerships with organizations public and private, from the Department of Agriculture to Pheasants Forever. BRLC volunteers are currently processing eight or nine applications, keeping in mind the long-term responsibilities that come with these transactions.
“We will monitor these in perpetuity,” Rayfield said. “You have to be able to take care of it 100 years from now.”
The BRLC came about after repeated failures in recent decades to generate public funding for preservation work. Most recently, Proposition 1 was voted down, and a few years before that a proposal to implement a sales tax for land preservation also was rejected. And federal funds that can often be applied for to match local donations are disappearing, Rayfield noted. What’s left is to rely on the generosity of donors.
“This can be very, very difficult,” he said. “Conservation funds are drying up. If we want to save our valley, citizens have to step up before it’s too late. A new mindset has to take place.”
In the meantime, BRLC will continue to protect smaller parcels, a few acres at a time. At some point the group hopes to generate enough funding to justify hiring an executive director, but that will require continued growth in donations. Some people are already stepping up.
“We’ve had some generous donors, and we need a lot more,” Rayfield said. “We’re a long way from where we need to be in order to be considered a viable organization.”