A group of conservation organizations and governmental agencies have pooled their resources to hire a full-time Bear River watershed conservation coordinator.
Kiley Heaps, who recently earned two master’s degrees in anthropology and geographic information systems from Idaho State University, started with the land trust on March 1 and is training to spearhead the conservation efforts within the Bear River watershed.
“If we don’t protect these landscapes, then we won’t have them in the future,” Heaps said. “That (real estate) development pressure will continue, and all of a sudden there’s no more corridors for the mule deer to get through. All the wetlands are shifted and the nesting birds in those areas don’t have anywhere to do that so they go away.”
Heaps will coordinate acquisitions of conservation easements along the Bear River within Wyoming, Idaho and Utah, in addition to helping land owners access state and federal conservation programs to enhance the conservation values of their properties.
Her position is being supported by Bear River Land Conservancy, Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust, Intermountain West Joint Venture, Mule Deer Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, two regions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Heaps has been in the position for about three weeks, but already she’s heard from several stakeholders that a conservation effort that coordinates across state boundaries is badly needed.
“So many conservation approaches, they’re very limited in ‘OK, well, this is where we work, and we don’t go beyond that boundary because that’s where we say we work,’” Heaps said.
“And that’s the really cool thing about this position, is it’s sort of challenging those boundaries and not making them as pertinent, because we’re all working together in this.”
Heaps stepped into her position at a key time for the scenic watershed. Development pressure has been mounting along the Bear River corridor even before the coronavirus pandemic, which set off a new spike in housing demand.
“We’re getting a big push of people from the city who don’t necessarily want to be living in the cities anymore,” Heaps said. “If these landowners don’t have the options to benefit from doing conservation-type stuff, they’d be more likely to subdivide and sell off that land. But ultimately, that undermines the protected areas that we’re trying to keep and the landscape in general.”
Bear River Land Trust Executive Director Casey Snider said Heaps’s role as join coordinator comes at a crucial time, not just for landowners who’d like options to resist development pressure, but for communities wanting to preserve open space and the next generation of farmers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay out their siblings for their shares of the family farm.
“We’re planting houses faster than we’re planting about any other crop in Cache Valley right now,” Snider said. “There’s a real need to do something and a very small window of opportunity before it becomes too late. This position allows that to happen.”
Bear River Land Conservancy is seeing a high demand for easements. Right now funding has been approved for a project of about 6,000 acres within Cache County, and they’re working to get funding and approval for 4,000 acres in Box Elder and about 15,000 acres in Rich County.
North of the Utah-Idaho border, Matt Lucia, executive director at the Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust, said development pressure is “definitely a challenge.”
“The thing we have working in our favor is the established partnership in the landscape since 2004, and we have a solid block of protected lands that we are building upon,” Lucia said. “Our strategic landscape approach ties in with state and federal lands and other conservation easements.”
Furthermore, Lucia said the watershed’s landowners are now more aware of the opportunity land trusts afford them.
Sagebrush Steppe has five separate projects in the works to protect conservation easements within the Bear River system, totaling 7,000 acres. The projects range widely in terms of how close they are to coming to fruition.
Four of the pending projects involve working cattle ranches, whose owners sell development rights to their properties in perpetuity. Language in their agreements requires them to install wildlife-friendly fencing as they make fencing upgrades. One rancher the land trust is working with already surrounded his properties with the special fencing, which facilitates wildlife movement.
Heaps plans to facilitate a dialogue with landowners throughout the course of the Bear River, having face-to-face interactions as much as possible.
The land trust has had significant resources to put use toward protecting land and improving habitat near the Bear River since its founding. Lucia said the land trust has worked in partnership with the Bear River Environmental Coordination Committee, which comprises state and federal agencies and conservation-related nongovernmental organizations. The committee is responsible for investing mitigation funds that PacifiCorp must award toward Idaho Bear River watershed conservation, under the terms of its relicensing agreement for operating Bear River hydropower projects.
PacifiCorp provides hundreds of thousands annually in mitigation funds toward conservation easement acquisitions and habitat restoration projects.
“Each one of these properties has unique habitat characteristics, all of which play some role in providing habitat for big game, upland game such as sage grouse sharp-tailed grouse, water fowl and a host of conservation priority species,” Lucia said.