September 10, 2008 News of Spatial Interest Vol. 1, No. 14

Beaver dam and lodge 

The trapper Alexander Ross, working for the Hudson Bay Company, crossed Galena Summit during his 1824 travels.  A European market for beaver pelts financed the expedition into the Wood River and Sawtooth valleys.  Rosss trapping skills supplied the material to distant markets that transformed the fur into stylish hats. 


Miners followed trapping in the 1840s, and their numbers increased in the 1860s with the discovery of gold in the Stanley Basin.  The economic settlement chronology is common for Communities on the Edge trapping and mining first, followed by timber and agriculture to support the mining towns.  Towns would boom while mines produced valuable ore and then decline or vanish like a ghost following economic depletion of the resource.


Today, animal fur makes a return trip, occasionally adorning the shoulders or boots of downhill skiers who take temporary residence in vacation homes and resort lodges.  In the spring, the mountain snowmelt and runoff feeds the Big Wood River tributaries, and a recreation  industry discovered a new form of gold fly fishing.  The seasonal boom and bust  cycles of recreation  replaced the historic pattern of trapping and mining.  Ross would marvel at the money spent  today to "trap" a trout, simply to release the fish back to its home waters.  Outfitters, retail fly shops and lodging support the recreation with their goods and services.


Like the spring runoff, the homes have flowed into the Big Wood River Valley filling the banks of the Wood River south from Ketchum and Sun Valley.  With increasing demand for residential home sites, the established neighborhoods along the Wood River function as a weir, backing up development demand into the adjoining canyons and gulches.      The county tax records for 2007 report a total residential assessed valuation of  $11 billion,  urban (65%) and rural (35%).  In Old Town Hailey, some buyers purchase homes just for the lot, demolishing the old home and replacing with new. The high values,  particularly on a dwelling unit basis, motivate developers to the search for additional property.   Even in the current housing credit drought, the development proposals submitted to Blaine County are frequent, and of substantial size.


Although not the outcome intended by visitors and new residents, the development pattern and intensity can erode the very amenities that draw people to the valley.  The Wood River Land Trust engages  the community to sustain the qualities of the region.    The nonprofit has entered the real estate market  by purchasing land for preserves, negotiating voluntary agreements that provide tax benefits to private landowners, and collaborating on land and stream restoration projects.  The group has also indirectly impacted land use by successfully advocating changes to stream setback regulations and promoting trout friendly lawns.  Their footprint  appears throughout the Valley (and the photo atlases below), often where tributaries join the Big Wood River.

Greenhorn and Triumph Photo Atlas

A vacation traveler has no need for a map to mark the southern edge of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area on Highway 75.  Builders have responded  over the years to the amenity demand  with subdivisions adjacent to the SNRA and the Big Wood River. 


South of Ketchum and Sun Valley, two roads contrast development markets and style.  The Greenhorn Road heads west to a popular mountain bike trail, passing through an impressive neighborhood of estate home.  A new home under construction is a neighbor  to the Forest Service Greenhorn Guard Station, a small white building  that marks the entrance to the trailhead.  The second road, on the east side of Highway 75,  parallels the East Fork of the Big Wood River, with subdivisions on the north side of the river.  Between the historic mining settlement of Triumph and the Sawtooth National Forest Boundary, the Wood River Land Trust accomplished a conservation triumph of two voluntary landowner agreements with ranchers in the area.  The agreements prevent development pressures from converting the productive pastures to more intense land use.


Slightly north of the junction between these two roads is the Box Car Preserve, a well maintained public access point to the Big Wood River.  Visitors can reach the preserve by car directly off the highway or on bike via the community trail system.  The public river access is a popular stopping point for fly fishing.


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Democrat Gulch and Quigley Canyon Photo Atlas

Hailey is a hub with four spokes aligning with the compass.  Highway 75 forms two spokes, running north and south through town.  The highway joins two side road  leading into the adjacent canyons:  Democrat Gulch and Quigley Canyon.  Developers have submitted plans to Blaine County for  real estate developments both areas. 


To the west, the Democrat Gulch photos include an irrigated farm at the mouth of the gulch.   The road continues, leading to BLM ownership.  The proposed Spring Canyon Ranch plans are under review by Blaine County Planners, and a staff report is forthcoming.


To the east, the Quigley Canyon photos begin with irrigated farmland on the edge of Hailey neighborhoods, and the road parallels Quigley Creek.   Existing "structures" in the creek included a beaver dam and lodge.  Private land continues east with drier conditions, reaching towards the Pioneer Mountains and public lands (Idaho Department of Lands, BLM, and the Salmon-Challis National Forest).  The Quigley Canyon Ranch developers have requested annexation into the city of Hailey.  If approved, the development will include 379 residential units, an 18 hole golf course, and a Nordic ski facility.


The Wood River Land Trust left their footprint at the junction of the four spokes.  The Draper Wood River Preserve retains 84.5 acres of cottonwood forest, providing visitors with public access to the river.  The photo atlas also includes examples of a collaborative project to restore Lions Park, the   adjoining property.  The park's former community role was a landfill.    The photo of the restoration shows the recent plantings, but doesn't capture the significant cleanup of debris that previously occupied the parcel.


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New Community

Cove Spring RanchCove Springs, a proposed new community 4.5 miles south of Bellevue, combines development with agriculture and conservation of open space.  Within the 4600 acre ranch, the developer proposes 308 residential lots within 600 acres.  The road entrance to the ranch (photo inset) winds for a mile  to the site of the development located behind the ridge (photo background).


Residents spoke at the public hearing in opposition to the new community and outnumbered proponents two to one.  Opponents raised several issues, questioning the leapfrog development pattern of the proposed bedroom community.   Prior to this development proposal, the Wood River Land Trust reviewed applications, but did not take a formal position.  Breaking with that role, the Land Trust opposed the Cove Springs development.     The County Commissioners unanimously denied the application in October, 2007.    The developer challenged the decision, resulting in a court judgment in favor of the developer.  Nine land use ordinances were successfully challenged by Cove Springs. Recently, the developer and Blaine County have agreed to mediation as a method to resolve the differences.


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A Silver Lining

Silver Creek Preserve Map


The Silver Creek Preserve protects a spring fed fishery southeast of the Big Wood River.  The oasis in the desert is habitat for brown and rainbow trout (about 6,000 per stream mile).  Decades prior to the status as a preserve, the property was purchased by Sun Valley in 1936.  Five hundred acres provided fishing and hunting for the resort guests.  In 1975, when the resort owner decided to sell the property, Jack Hemingway raised money to acquire the property, and then donated the land to The Nature Conservancy.  In 33 years following the donation, the preserve has grown to 882 acres.  By working with 22 local local landowners, nearly 10,000 acres surrounding the preserve are also protected from development. 


The landscape approach to the conservation of Silver Creek contributes to the local economy in two different markets.  Landowners continue to raise cattle and produce hay on their private property.  The voluntary agreements reserved the landowners' ability to farm and ranch,  sustaining rural lifestyles and economic production. The preserve's reputation as a trout fishery attracts fly casters from around the country.     The comparatively new recreation sector complements the historical agricultural land uses.


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Little Wood, Less Gold?

Blaine County land use is a primer on conservation economics and strategy. Besides being the home to the first major ski resort in the United States (and the first chair lift),  the county includes an early success in landscape scale conservation of working lands.  Considering the current development pressure on side canyons in the Wood River Valley, what would be the economic pressure in 2008 on Silver Creek landowners to convert their lands to recreation or retirement subdivisions?   The footprint of Silver Creek would be a stark contrast with the rural patterns in the photo atlas.


The Wood River Valley housing boom occurred in the 1970's.  By the time the Wood River Land Trust initiated their good work in 1994, landscape approaches to conserving working lands were no longer feasible adjacent to the river. Ownership was fragmented into multiple tenants, real estate prices were high, and the critical mass that formed the ranching and farming community was no longer resident in the upper valley.  Conservation efforts in those circumstances is left to work on smaller parcels and restoration of damage from harsh land uses. 


The lesson from the Cove Springs court challenge reminds all that reliance on land use regulation to protect working lands is a high risk proposition.   When investors have acquired interests in farms and ranches, the conversion of those properties to alternative uses is probable. 


Where is the potential for landscape scale protection today - working lands in this region with a small number of landowners, who prefer to retain a rural lifestyle and community, and  who manage land with  wildlife habitat?   Some believe the Little Wood River meets the criteria, a landscape described as the "Before" compared to the Big Wood as the "After".  Large ranch and farm parcels in the watershed are owned by a small number of families.  The landscape supports seasonal migration of wildlife, traveling from the high country to the valleys.  The real estate market is just beginning to recognize the amenity values of the property.


The lesson from the Wood River and Silver Creek is one of timing and method.  Conservation investments in working lands are most effective when they are made ahead of the real estate market.  The invested dollars extend further when real estate values are not multiples of the farm and ranch production values.  Methods that include financial incentives to landowners are more likely to sustain the rural community than regulations that arrive too late in the market cycle.  Following the Jack Hemingway strategy of 1975, the Little Wood's rural lifestyle can be sustained before the big gold discovers its charms. 


The photo atlas includes samples of the rural lanscapes in the Little Wood River Valley, and the first sign or two of development pressure.


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