March 15, 2001 11:00 pm

The Miracle Mile.

When Jim Ward of La Grande speaks of it he is not referring to Roger Banisters first sub-four-minute mile in 1954.

Ward instead is discussing one of Union Countys wildlife gems a portion of land running south along Foothill Road from the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area viewpoint to Oxen Springs.

Many refer to this as a miracle mile for wildlife viewing. It is often said that this stretch has a greater diversity of wildlife than any portion of Eastern Oregon, said Ward, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The future of the miracle mile has been brightened by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The RMEF has purchased about 900 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the miracle mile stretch. The land rises up a hillside from the west side of Foothill Road south

of La Grande.

The RMEFs purchase greatly reduces any chance the miracle mile will be hurt by nearby development. Prior to the purchase people had been expressing interest in buying the land for the purpose of developing it, Ward said.

The property was owned for many years by Richard and Martha Smutz. Their daughter, Geraldine Daggett, later acquired the land and accepted an RMEF offer to sell it. The significance of the sale cannot be underestimated.

This is the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundations most significant acquisition in the region in terms of its direct impact on elk and people, said Art Talsma of Boise, director of northwest field operations for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

He explained that the purchase also means that one of Oregons most remarkable wildlife corridors will be preserved. Elk, deer, bears, and many other animals regularly move back and forth between the former Daggett property and Ladd Marsh.

Elk are a prime and vital example. Throughout the year elk, seeking security, spend their days on the hillside property under the cover of timber. At night the elk come down to the ODFWs Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area to feed.

Most of the time they return by daybreak but sometimes they remain at Ladd Marsh for several days.

Had the hillside property been developed with homes and ranchettes, a volatile situation would have developed. The elk might have felt so uncomfortable that they would have moved out and ventured on to agricultural land. Conflicts between ranchers and elk would have resulted, said La Grande U.S. Forest Service biologist Mark Penninger, a member of the RMEF.

Penninger is also a strong supporter of the land purchase for other reasons. He said it helps guarantee that the area will continue to be a resource for people who want to enjoy and learn about wildlife in a special setting. He noted that it is unusual to have such a site so close to a community. The area is just three miles south of La Grande.

It is unique to see something like this so close to town, Penninger said. It provides many learning opportunities.

Penninger noted that at the Ladd Marsh viewpoint one can see elk, bear, white-tailed deer, mule deer, valley quail, waterfowl, shorebirds, ring-necked pheasants and more in close proximity to each other.

It is rare to have upland and marsh wildlife side by side, Penninger said.

Talsma echoes this sentiment.

You would be hard-pressed to go anywhere else in the state and see more wildlife, he said.

Those who have played key roles in the purchase include Ward, Penninger said. He noted that Ward first found out that the land might be available. He then started a letter writing campaign to the RMEF.

He is the one who brought the opportunity to everyones attention, Penninger said.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation land will eventually be managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The RMEF and the ODFW are forming a management agreement. Once the agreement is reached the land will become part of the ODFWs Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area.

Erickson stressed that the land will remain accessible to the public. Steps to protect wildlife, such as road closures, may be taken though.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has started a fund-raising drive to replace the money used to purchase the Daggett property. A commemorative Ladd Marsh belt buckle is being sold as part of this drive.

Later a painting of the property will be commissioned by the RMEF. Prints will be sold at fund raisers.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will hold a celebration to commemorate the purchase on June 16 at Ladd Marsh. The celebration will be conducted the same day as the RMEFs annual banquet in La Grande.

The June 16 celebration is more than warranted, La Grande ODFW biologist Mark Henjum said.

Every once in a while during a career you see something happen which will have a positive long-term effect on fish and wildlife. This is one of them, Henjum said.

Story by Dick Mason of The Observer