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Back in 2008, 36 240-acre homesites were for sale along the Imnaha River. The Nature Conservancy purchased 27 of those parcels and is selling them to the U.S. Forest Service for inclusion into the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
Access to premier steelhead and Chinook waters, trails and public lands prompted the U.S. Forest Service to purchase private property adjacent to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Fishing access has not only increased on the Imnaha River, but the land purchase has guaranteed that access won’t be locked out in the future.Laura Livingston of the Forest Service said the Imnaha parcels were originally part of the Blue Mountain Land Exchange that included lands adjacent to the Wallowa-Whitman, Malheur and Umatilla national forests. While that deal was being considered, three landowners consolidated their holdings along the Imnaha and packaged them into 36 240-acre parcels.
The Blue Mountain Land Exchange fell through and the Imnaha parcels were marketed as home sites, increasing their value to roughly $1,000 an acre, Jeff Fields of The Nature Conservancy said. Yet the Forest Service was still interested in purchasing the land. Provisions included in the 1974 Hells Canyon National Recreation Area legislation encourage acquisition of adjacent land when opportunities arise, Livingston said.
“The Act directs us to buy land in order to protect fish and wildlife habitat and allow for access to the river and trails,” Livingston said.
Faced with the possibility that the parcels would be purchased, developed and public access locked out forever, the agency asked for public input.
The Wallowa County Board of Commissioners looked to its Natural Resource Advisory Committee for recommendations. John Williams said the Lands Committee was formed with a broad spectrum of members including representatives from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service, Wallowa Resources, The Nature Conservancy, the Nez Perce Tribe and ranchers.
“The committee met for several months and a wide variety of people were brought into the process,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t say there was complete consensus, but we eventually recommended to move forward on the purchase.”
Mary DeAguero, district ranger for the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, was a member of the Lands Committee. She said the committee went through an extensive process analyzing each parcel and attempted to assuage fears of a big land grab.
“Each parcel was assigned attributes like wildlife habitat, existing grazing, fishing and hunting and public access to the river and trails,” DeAguero said. “Except for a few parcels everyone agreed to federal ownership.”
Adjacent landowners were asked if they wanted an opportunity to buy some of the important grazing land, DeAguero said, but they didn’t feel the urgency to buy and chose to continue grazing the land as permittees.
“The Nature Conservancy, local land managers and politicians agreed that private land adjacent to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area should be purchased and included in the NRA,” DeAguero said.
In all, 27 of the 36 240-acre parcels were tagged for federal acquisition.
Wallowa County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Hayward said it is not typical for the county to support increased federal land ownership, but access to fishing was the major selling point.
“Philosophically, we almost always take the position that we don’t need any more government-owned land in the county, but if the parcels were purchased for home sites it would have significantly impeded fishing access,” Hayward said.
The public recommendation made, the nagging issues of time and money arose. Fields said in 2008 the Forest Service asked The Nature Conservancy to buy and temporarily own the parcels.
“The Nature Conservancy used a line of credit loan of $7 million to get the land and make the deal in a relatively short time,” Fields said.
The deal was supported by the Conservancy’s Oregon board of trustees and a national level management team, he said.
“The Nature Conservancy wouldn’t get involved in every land exchange, but the conservation mission fit,” Fields said.
Livingston said the best character of the National Recreation Area is its pristine natural landscape and the Conservancy helped protect the land from development.
“We often work with groups like The Nature Conservancy because the time line to get purchase money is a long process, up to three to five years,” Livingston said.
Fields said this is the second year of a three-year purchase process. In 2010, 2,021 acres were purchased by the federal government, this year about half of the total, 3,032, is being transferred, and in 2012, the remaining 1,640 acres will become part of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
Fields said that when the deal is completed, 15 miles of the Imnaha River will be accessible and 14 key wildlife species will be protected.
“The intent of land exchanges is to bring value to public holdings,” Fields said.