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River Fork Ranch to build laboratory for agricultural studies

by Jeff Munson

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 for local, state and even global study.

Beginning today, a group of scientists, conservationists, ranchers and Forest Service representatives will attend a private seminar hosted by The Nature Conservancy to preserve the River Fork Ranch as pristine habitat for ecologically sound ranching and farming.

“Our hope is to make the River Fork a viable ranching operation, using new approaches and new technology to promote ecologically sound practices,” said Judy Sturgis, whose local nonprofit organization, the Timken-Sturgis Foundation helped buy the River Fork Ranch last July.

The plan is to create an education and public outreach center that will provide land-use decision makers, students, conservationists and the ranching community the opportunity to learn how to make ranching and wildlife compatible.

The featured speaker is Jeff Danter, project manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve in Orlando, Fla.

As project manager, Danter oversaw the creation of the preserve and a learning center, which offers exhibits, research material and guided tours at the 12,000-acre preserve, which is located at the headwaters of the Florida Everglades.

Sturgis hopes the presentation will provide a model for the River Fork Ranch. The Nature Conservancy wants to build a energy-efficient learning center similar to the one in Orlando.

A site outside of the flood plain has been chosen for the learning center, which Sturgis says will play an important role for research, education and to provide ranchers a place to discuss conservation-oriented land management practices.

“As ranchers we are land stewards. And for every rancher out there, they understand the importance of maintaining the land they are working on,” Sturgis said. “With a center, we hope to bring in new ideas that will shape the future of ranching and promote land management practices that accomplish ecological, educational and agricultural goals.”

With conservation and biodiversity as a primary goal, a main objective is protect and reestablish the natural function of the riparian and wetlands ecosystem at the ranch, Sturgis said. The River Fork Ranch includes a portion of the Brockliss Slough near David Walley’s Hot Springs, and is an ecologically important freshwater wetland and wet meadows that provides habitat for water birds and migratory, birds including bald and golden eagles.

Also planned for the ranch is a trail system that will exhibit site-specific, science-based interactive maps. Sturgis hopes to partner with agencies and conservation groups, including the Forest Service, which has toured the property and is currently developing a cooperative agreement so Forest Service land adjacent to the ranch can be integrated into the trail plan.