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Reinventing Ranching

How today's farmers are adapting to environmental demands

Neighboring ranchers in Silver Creek demonstrated that they can be a terrific conservation force. They were guided by by organizations like the Wood River Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy.

Neighboring ranchers in Silver Creek demonstrated that they can be a terrific conservation force. They were guided by by organizations like the Wood River Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy.

Photograph: David R. Stoecklein

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At 91, Bud Purdy relies on his pickup truck or his single-engine airplane to survey his ranch in Picabo. Until recently, he used his horse to keep track of things. Then, last year, he was bucked off his horse, got run over by a cow, and broke some bones. Still, he expects he’ll be riding again by spring.

Every day at about noon, he heads across Highway 20 to the lunch counter, convenience and sporting goods store his family owns, and grabs a bite. When he wants a change of conversation, he’ll fly his Piper Cherokee on down to Fairfield or Sulphur Creek.

Bud Purdy is archetypical of the central Idaho range where his family has chiseled its family crest for six generations. His ancestors are the Kilpatricks, who homesteaded here in the 1800s and later developed the railroad from Shoshone to Ketchum. Bud counted Ernest Hemingway and his son Jack, both fanatical outdoorsmen, as close friends and hunting companions.

Today, Bud and his son Nick own and operate one of the largest ranches in the Silver Creek area. They farm hay and barley, raise cattle and sheep and run a fishing concession.

There is no debating the Purdy legacy here. But perhaps Bud Purdy’s most remarkable contribution is the role he and his neighboring ranchers have played in securing ranching’s future. Ten years ago, he donated a 3,400-acre conservation easement on his ranch and became party to a watershed event in ranching history.

Just over 30 years ago, The Nature Conservancy purchased the Silver Creek Preserve, then known as the Sun Valley Ranch, from the Sun Valley Company. The Preserve is a 479-acre parcel of land 33 miles south of Ketchum, accessed through Hailey and Bellevue by State Highway 75, and a few miles east on Highway 20. The Conservancy then sought the cooperation of neighboring ranchers, who were encouraged to donate conservation easements near the Preserve, forever protecting an additional 10,000-acre swath of the Silver Creek landscape.

Purdy’s easement donation was not the first, but it is the largest. As he says, “I figured that if my neighbor John Stevenson thought it was a good idea, I should look into it, too. I didn’t want my land to be broken up into pieces down the road.”

The collective effort in Silver Creek signaled a turning point in conservation.

Old-line ranchers, investors, local government and environmentalists cooperated, cautiously at first, and then more openly. These constituencies had long been at odds. It was wholly novel for them to partner. By sharing knowledge and resources, they managed to save vast acreage, rehabilitate the land and the creek, and enhance the agricultural, scenic, and recreational value of the area. The collaboration proved that environmentalists and ranchers could work together to preserve a large and well-loved landscape.

Working ranches face a new age

The working ranch is emblematic of the American West. It is where the amber waves of grain meet the purple mountain majesties. It is where the cowboy spirit reigns as an expression of our national ego. In the recent past, it has become an endangered species. Over the past decade, the Western United States has been growing at twice the rate of the rest of the country. Since the late ’90s, Idaho’s population increased 41 percent. Growth and subdivisions have been devouring wide-open ranges that once defined the foothills and the plains. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, urban sprawl has been consuming land at triple the rate of population growth.

Developers seek the lands that are near water, recreation and scenic beauty and, as a consequence, compete for the same lands as the ranchers. Soaring property values, taxes and lures of economic options have encouraged or forced many ranchers to let go of their ranch homesteads. To date, low-density development has placed more than five million acres of the state’s best ranchlands in peril. Statistics gathered by the American Farmland Trust show these ranchlands represent natural resources that could completely disappear by 2020, greatly impacting the ecological, economic and cultural fabric of local communities. >>>


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