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Feds look to buy development rights in watershed

The federal government is looking to buy up development rights in hundreds of thousands of acres in southeast Idaho. Conservationists say it’s a win-win for wildlife, as well as for farmers and ranchers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service said the Bear River Watershed, encompassing much of southeast Idaho supports a lot of local wildlife and needs to be kept safe.

“It helps us look at where the critical habitat is and protect it for a long-term future,” said Fish and Wildlife Refuge Manager Bob Barrett. “The Bear River Watershed is a critical watershed.”

Fish and Wildlife wants to turn up to 920,000 in the watershed into conservation easements. The basic idea is that the federal government pays local landowners for the rights to stop any development on that land. Farmers and ranchers, along with getting a significant chunk of change, get to continue using that same land to grow crops or graze cattle.

“I’m interested in it. Most ranchers are land rich and money poor, so this is a way to put money in your pockets while still continuing to do what you do,” said rancher Bret Oxborrow. “And that’s what I’m looking at.”

Of course, landowners can always turn down the offer if they’re not sure about it.

The service said it wants to make it clear it’s not against all development in these rural areas and just wants to make sure it doesn’t damage the local environment.

“We realize there’s going to be constant pressure for development, and we’re not opposed to development,” said Refuge Project Leader Tracy Casselman. “We want to see smart development. We’d like to see development that’s away from the river and has as little impact as possible.”

The agency held a public meeting in Montpelier on Thursday to get comments on the plan. Fish and Wildlife representatives said getting public feedback isn’t just a formality – it can make or break the whole program.

“If we have a program that doesn’t work for farmers and ranchers, we’re done. We’re not going to have the trust and support out there in the community to have a viable program,” said Barrett.

Fish and Wildlife said that depending on the area, a typical payment for easement could run about half of the appraised value of land.

The agency is holding another public meeting on the easement plan Friday evening in Preston.

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