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Keeping ranch intact a boon to whitetails

Colville-area cattleman John Dawson is signing conservation easements for hundreds of acres of his ranch.
Colville-area cattleman John Dawson is signing conservation easements for hundreds of acres of his ranch.

A group effort is under way to keep a Colville-area ranch intact for the benefit of the family and the public.

“As long as we keep land open to wildlife, we’ve accomplished our mission,” said Jay Kehne of Conservation Northwest, one of several groups and agencies involved in a 504-acre conservation easement. “Working ranches are just as important for wildlife as planting trees.”

The project revolves around John and Melva Dawson and their willingness to sell the valuable development rights to valley-bottom land that’s prime for future development just 4 miles north of Colville.

John Dawson, 67, said he’s witnessed a major change in the valley since they moved to the ranch 40 years ago. “Most of the ranches have broken up or subdivided, or at least tried to,” he said. “We want to preserve the ranches. It has to do with keeping the land open not only for our families but for wildlife.”

Dawson estimates the area’s deer numbers have declined perhaps 30 percent since he’s been on the ranch, a number that’s not disputed by Washington Fish and Wildlife Department area biologist Dana Base.

“There are several factors for the lower deer numbers, but habitat changes are at the core of the problem,” Base said. “The loss of farm fields and bottomland meadows is critical in terms of the number of whitetails we can maintain.

“The demographics on that land are changing. People who own much of that former farm land aren’t much interested in farming.”

The trend is troubling, whether you’re a hunter, rancher or a conservationist, Kehne said.

That’s why Conservation Northwest is stepping up to help the Dawsons become one of the first ranch families in Northeastern Washington to enter into a conservation easement that will forever preclude their land from being subdivided.

Here’s what the effort has required.

Federal funding: The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service approved the Dawson’s application for conservation easement funds from the Farm and Ranch Protection Program, which is funded by the Farm Bill.

FRPP will provide 50 percent of the easement’s value, unofficially appraised at more than $1 million.

Matching funds: While the Dawson family plans to donate land to meet a portion of cost to match the federal contribution, Conservation Northwest has agreed to raise $400,000 to make up the difference.

Easement holder: The Inland Northwest Land Trust is helping work out the appraisals and legal work and will eventually hold the easement.

“This is what we specialize in,” said Chris DeForest, INWLT executive director in Spokane. “We set up the complicated but long-lived conservation transactions.”

The Land Trust works privately with many landowners who set conservation easements on smaller parcels primarily for tax advantages and family succession planning.

But the trust also has worked on large parcels with wildlife-centric groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“We all play well together,” DeForest said. “There’s so much to do and so much more to be accomplished by collaborating rather than competing.”

“In the case of the Dawsons,” Kehne said, “we’re not buying the land, just the development rights. The landowner can still sell the property, but it would sell at a reduced rate because the development rights have been sold off.

“This makes the land more affordable down the line to someone who wants to farm or ranch. Nowadays, a young rancher can’t afford productive ranch land because he has to pay developer prices.”

Ferry and Stevens county commissioners support conservation easement efforts while Okanogan’s commissioners are skeptical, he added.

John Dawson said his family members, including his son, Jeff, are glad to be part of “a new concept in the northeast corner of the state.”

“Usually ranchers stay in business until they reach retirement age and their property is the family’s retirement,” he said.

“But that’s not what we wanted to do. The tradition of selling off the place is eliminating the future for ranching.

“When ranches are broken up, the hay fields disappear and there’s a house on every 20 acres, along with their dogs. That’s not a good future for wildlife, either.”

Dawson’s private property is just the nucleus of the ranch. “Its viability depends on the surrounding leased land and the national forest (grazing) permits that go with it,” he said.

“With all the budget cuts coming in state and federal government, you hope they can continue to go this way with conservation easements.

“This leaves the ranchers owning the land and keeping the tradition alive while preserving the open space for wildlife and future generations.”

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