Craig Gehrke has spent more than 30 years in a land-conservation career — working to set aside more wilderness in Idaho for The Wilderness Society and focusing on forest and range management issues on public lands. But Gehrke recently learned firsthand about the potential for implementing conservation measures on private lands — on his family’s ranch near Cottonwood.
When Gehrke’s parents died in 2011 and 2012, he and his wife, Pam, were faced with a vexing choice — would they sell the family ranch on Cottonwood Butte or keep it? Their kids love visiting the place, and Gehrke felt uneasy about letting it go, considering his family had owned it for close to a century.
“For something that’s been in your family for 100 years, you don’t make that decision lightly,” Gehrke said. “But we didn’t want it to turn into a money pit either.”
The 240-acre ranch is located on Lawyers Creek on the west flank of Cottonwood Butte. The headwaters of the creek actually flows from the Gehrke property. Gehrke checked with the Idaho County Soil and Water Conservation District office in Grangeville and discovered there were significant cost-share funds available for riparian restoration projects.
When his parents died, the ranch manager was grazing Black Angus cattle on the property. Gehrke wanted to continue cattle grazing on the property, but he wondered if it would be possible to fence off the creek without reducing the grazing income from the land. His caretaker thought that was a great idea.
“I was pretty ambivalent about continuing to graze the property initially,” Gehrke said. “But then I thought about it, and I’ve seen a lot of places on public lands where I don’t want to see cattle grazing, but I like a good burger just as much as the next guy, so from a philosophical perspective, I decided that it would be a good thing to keep the cows grazing on the private land on our ranch.”
And so, they decided to keep the ranch. With three-quarters of the project cost covered through cost-share funds, his family could afford to fence off Lawyer’s Creek without breaking the bank. Those improvements would benefit wildlife and water quality. Lawyer’s Creek is on the 303(d) list of degraded waters in Idaho.
Local farm conservation experts explained that the fencing could break the home ranch property into at least two pastures, if not more. The Gehrkes own another 80 acres on Cottonwood Butte that could be used as another cattle pasture. That would be beneficial for the private rangelands on the ranch to install a rest-rotation grazing system.
“We’ve got a grazing system now,” Gehrke said. “There’s a water trough in both pastures.”
Gehrke treated both sides of Lawyer’s Creek with 3,750 linear feet of fencing on each side. The buffer area he created for wildlife is about 35-70 feet wide on both sides of the creek — about twice as wide as typical projects in the area.
“We’ve already done several tours of his place,” said Eileen Rowan, water quality resource conservationist for the Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission. “We like to show his place because Craig is very wildlife-oriented.”
Gehrke tapped the expertise of longtime friend Mary Dudley, who has headed up Idaho Fish and Game’s volunteer planting program for decades, to assist with the big job of planting more than 350 plants in the riparian areas. Dudley said she’d be glad to help, and she lined up 17 volunteers to help do the planting project two years in a row. The Gehrke family participated as well. The planting crew camped at the Gehrke place.
The plantings included willows, aspen trees, dogwoods, alders and more.
“We’re in a pretty remote location,” Gehrke said. “It’s the end of the school bus route, the end of the power line. We’ve never had 17 people at the ranch at one time. That was pretty neat.”
As is often the case with voluntary stewardship projects in Idaho, the Gehrke riparian enhancement project involved multiple partners and agencies, including the Conservation Commission, the Idaho County Soil and Water Conservation District, Idaho Fish and Game, the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, and NRCS.
Gehrke’s project fit well with conservation district priorities in Lewis and Idaho counties - the entire Lawyer Creek watershed is a priority: more than $700,000 has been invested in water quality-improvement projects in Lewis and Idaho counties, Rowan said.
Gehrke sees the project as giving back to the land where he grew up. He’s a graduate of Highland High School at Craigmont.
“I’m into it for the wildlife,” he says. “Think how beautiful the stream will be with dogwoods, aspens, cottonwoods 15 years from now. It’s going to be incredible.”
Gehrke already is seeing results — he’s seen herons and geese in the freshly planted riparian areas, more songbirds, deer and more.
“I feel I owe something back to the home place,” he said. “It feels good to give something back. It’s kind of like the wilderness concept, showing respect for the land.”
For someone who has toiled for decades as a professional to see results in public land conservation, it was gratifying for Gehrke to work on a private land conservation project that moved ahead much faster. Even so, however, a required archaeological survey took a little longer than expected, and Gehrke was tearing his hair out when the fence wasn’t getting built as the date approached for Dudley and the planting crew to show up. “That was driving me crazy, but it all worked out.”
Plus, seeing the success of riparian-restoration projects on public lands gave him confidence that it would be a sound investment on the Gehrke ranch.
“We’ve all seen many of those projects on public lands,” he said. “This project is just like that, but on a smaller scale.”
Steve Stuebner of Boise is a professional writer who specializes in conservation success stories.