Land trust

Matt Lucia, executive director of the Pocatello-based Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust, says his organization is interested in protecting “high-visibility” land in the Pocatello area.

Officials with a regional land trust are exploring the possibility of protecting land for sale in the Pocatello area’s benches and foothills, seeking to improve their organization’s visibility.

Matt Lucia, executive director of the Pocatello-based Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust, said the organization has already protected more than 6,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat throughout Southeast Idaho’s seven counties from development.

However, most of those conservation easements and outright donations have taken place in rural areas where they tend to go unnoticed — with the majority of land protected in the Bear River watershed.

In the winter of 2018, the land trust accepted the donation of 166 acres of winter range in the south hills above Pocatello, overlooking Century High School. Lucia said having such a high-profile land donation near the land trust’s major population center has gone a long way toward raising awareness about its mission and building public support.

“There are large pieces of property surrounding Pocatello that are for sale. We are wrestling with this,” Lucia said. “We are looking at what role we could potentially play in this.”

Lucia emphasized the land trust is still early in the process of exploring possibilities in the urban-wildland interface areas of the Portneuf Valley. However, he said his board has added three new members within the past six months — Greg McReynolds, of Trout Unlimited; Terrell Blanchard, a Pocatello conservationist and veterinary pathologist; and Dave Pacioretty, a retired Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist — and is looking at new ways to engage with local community conservation efforts.

“We have to explore and look at ways we can be part of communities and part of public access and part of getting people connected with the land,” Lucia said.

Lucia hopes the land trust will be a player in expediting the goals of the city’s longterm effort to restore the Portneuf River corridor, called the Portneuf River Vision.

During a recent city-sponsored town hall meeting, land trust board member John Sigler, who is the city’s former senior environmental coordinator, discussed how his organization would like to investigate ways to secure some of the land for sale in the Pocatello urban-wildland interface.

Thomas Klein, an Idaho State University English professor who lives on the city’s west side and recreates daily on the benches, believes saving some popular recreation land from development would provide a lasting benefit to the city’s quality of life.

“If you go into Maag’s Pharmacy, there’s a picture of downtown Pocatello and you can look at the west bench, and that land hasn’t changed since then,” Klein said. “It’s basically a part of Pocatello’s history, and I think it should be valued for that.”

Lucia said transaction costs of acquiring development easements typically run from $20,000 to $30,000, and a stewardship endowment must also be established to manage the property. He said it will be vital that city leaders support such efforts to preserve open space by contributing funding, staff time and other resources.

Hannah Sanger, science and environmental director for the city of Pocatello, acknowledged the city has been in discussions with the land trust on the issue.

“The city staff are meeting with the land trust staff,” Sanger said. “We’ve heard there’s a lot of community interest.”

Lucia explained the land trust has divided its service area into four watersheds — the Portneuf River, the Bear River, the Blackfoot River and the Snake River Plain. Rather than continuing with a “shotgun” approach to protecting land, he explained the land trust is now taking a targeted approach and seeking to protect strategic properties identified to address specific conservation needs within each watershed.

The land trust has significant resources available for projects within the Bear River system, where it works in collaboration with the Bear River Land Conservancy, the Intermountain West Joint Venture, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Mule Deer Foundation, the Wyoming Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The land trust plans to hire a conservation coordinator to serve the Bear River watershed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides key funding to serve the Bear River corridor and helps rank and score potential easements, which are held and managed by the land trust. PacifiCorp also provides a great deal of funding to the Bear River watershed to mitigate for its hydroelectric projects. Lucia said PacifiCorp’s Environmental Coordinating Committee has invested more than $4.5 million in easement acquisitions in the Bear River corridor — revenue that is “injected in farming and ranching communities.”

PacifiCorp’s mitigation funds can be used as a match to leverage grants from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to protect land. NRCS has identified the Bear River corridor as a high-priority area.

To make its Bear River projects more visible, Lucia said the land trust plans to create a video series and to launch a social media campaign about its investments there.

In the Blackfoot River watershed, the land trust administered $600,000 in grants last fall for conservation and habitat projects on behalf of a Habitat Improvement Team associated with the Rasmussen Valley Mine, formerly operated by Agrium. This spring, the land trust will take the lead in awarding another round of $600,000 to benefit conservation efforts in the watershed.

Outside of the Bear River and Blackfoot River watersheds, Lucia said it’s a challenge to find dedicated, consistent funding sources.

“That is the challenge is identifying foundations and grants and state and federal grant opportunities that can bring funding,” Lucia said. “Conservation is not cheap; if we want it then we have to pay for it.”