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Florida nature preserve could be a model for Genoa ranch

by Jeff Munson

Working partnerships between ranchers, local businesses and conservationists could be the key to turning a Genoa ranch into a multi-faceted learning center, said a top official with the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Jeff Danter, project manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve in Orlando, Fla. spoke to more than 30 representatives from the ranching, business and environmental communities during a seminar at David Walley’s Hot Springs Wednesday.

“There were a lot of people out there who thought this wouldn’t work. That there were too many issues, too much ambiguity and risk,” Danter said. “Today, our center has grown into a place the community of Orlando embraces.”

Nearly nine months after putting the 788-acre River Fork Ranch south of Genoa under permanent protection with The Nature Conservancy, plans are under way to make the land a farming and ranching laboratory, where new technology would be used to promote ecologically sound practices.

The Disney Wilderness Preserve and Conservation Center came about after the Department of Environmental Protection and the Walt Disney Co. negotiated an agreement for Disney to purchase 2,500 acres of wetlands, deed it to the Conservancy and provide funding for its restoration and management.

Danter, who oversaw development of the learning center, said the effort was arduous at first because environmentalists distrusted Disney.

“They thought Disney would turn the area into some kind of Disney theme park,” Danter said.

But what evolved was a collaboration of committees comprised of representatives from the business, environmental, educational and Disney communities. At first, the committees had to overcome trust issues. Once that happened, and the people involved looked at the bigger picture, the pieces to building the center began to fall into place, Danter said.

“What we saw evolve was a true working relationship among everyone involved. A working partnership that is built on trust,” he said. “Over time it has turned into a genuine relationship with real fondness” among the different representatives involved.

The plan for the River Fork Ranch is to create an education and public outreach center that will provide land-use decision makers, students, conservationists and the ranching community an opportunity to make ranching and wildlife compatible, said Judy Sturgis, whose non-profit organization, the Timken-Sturgis Foundation, helped buy the ranch last July.

Demographically and culturally, Florida and Nevada share many similarities, Danter said. Nevada ranks first in the nation in growth, followed by Florida, he said. Both are becoming more reliant on tourism rather than agriculture. And both see pristine land being swallowed by development.

The choice of what direction residents want to go with a learning center, and, on a larger scale, land protection in the Carson Valley, is up to them, Danter said.

“Ranchers and environmentalists will either win together or lose together,” he said.