Carey-area rancher John Peavey says he won't rest until all the 25,000 acres on his Flat Top Ranch are protected.
"We'll be working until we run out of land," Peavey said. "Our objective is to put the entire ranch under a conservation easement."
A conservation easement is a binding agreement with a conservation group that places restrictions on what the land can be used for, such as development, in order to protect the environmental value of the space in perpetuity. The landowner donates or sells certain rights to the land in exchange for agreeing to comply with those restrictions and submit to monitoring of the space to ensure the land remains essentially "as is."
So far, Peavey and his wife, Diane, have agreed to protect 1,114 acres of their land in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy and 7,561 acres through the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, a government agency that provides incentives to landowners who agree to protect sage-grouse habitat.
Together, the two easements have brought the Flat Top Ranch nearly $4 million, $217,000 of which comes from the Blaine County Land, Water and Wildlife Levy. Peavey said those funds only help to make up for the ranch's lost value if he ever sells.
"We've seriously devalued the ranch, because there are limited development opportunities now," he said.
Clint Evans, Natural Resources Conservation Service assistant state conservationist for programs, said the program is only available to landowners whose land is prime sage-grouse habitat.
"It takes into account the present state of the ecosystem, as to whether it has active sage grouse leks (mating areas) on site," he said.
So far, $6.3 million in perpetual easements have been granted in Blaine County, $4.5 million of which has gone to the Flat Top Ranch Co. and Lava Lake Lamb and Livestock near Carey.
Mike Stevens, coordinator of Pioneers Alliance, a southern Blaine County conservation organization, has worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to make the agency aware of the value of the Pioneer Mountains. He said private land is crucial to preserving the larger landscape due to the patchwork of government and private land in the region.
"You really can't protect the Pioneers and Craters [of the Moon National Monument] landscape without protecting private lands," he said. "If you want to think big and accomplish truly meaningful landscape conservation, you have to consider private ranches."
Specifically, Stevens said the Flat Top Ranch has a widely diverse landscape that not only provides sage-grouse habitat but is also part of one of the longest pronghorn antelope corridors in the West.
"Everyone assumed the antelope would go straight south from Carey," Peavey said. "I think that what happened thousands of years ago is that the lava flow blocked their route going south. Now they go way over east ... to Wyoming."
Peavey said that though his easements don't limit grazing on his land, he has already taken measures such as fence work and deterring raptors—who eat sage grouse eggs—from perching or nesting on the property.
"With the right range management, the land can improve for sage hens as well as for sheep and cattle," he said.
However, some neighboring ranchers have said distribution of conservation funds is unfair, and that the easements don't hold landowners accountable enough for management.
"I just don't understand why [Peavey] is getting all this money," said Rex Garner, owner of the Moonstone Ranch near U.S. Highway 20. "I just feel it should have been distributed to other ranchers as well. I just can't see where one person should get $3.4 million. It just seems crooked to me."
Garner said he applied for an easement as well, but was told all of the funding for 2011 had been allocated. Evans said Garner's application has been rolled to the 2012-13 funding season.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, six other ranches received funds for conservation easements in 2011. Though none gained as much as Peavey, Evans said this was because funding is based on the amount of acreage a rancher offers. He said none of the other ranchers gave up as much as Peavey did.
Garner also objected to Peavey's connections, including his role with the North Magic Valley Sage Grouse Working Group, a group of state biologists, wildlife experts and interested citizens dedicated to keeping sage grouse off the endangered species list. He contended that gave Peavey easy approval of his applications for funding.
Regan Berkley, wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the group's head facilitator, could not be reached for comment. Peavey denied the allegation, saying he was only helped in his application by Stevens (who is not a member of the group) and the Pioneers Alliance.
"That's absolutely false," he said. "I don't have any idea what you're talking about. It's taken forever to work through all the nooks and crannies."
Peavey said he's applying to protect his ranch not for the money, but because as a fifth-generation Idahoan he feels a deep connection to his land.
"We love the lay of the land and the meadows and the hills and the mountains and the streams," he said. "We'd love to leave the ground as it is today, forever."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org