Last October, Barry Brandow Sr. leaned over the barbed wire fence he had helped set up on land owned by the Nature Trust of British Columbia, just east of the Valley Heights neighbourhood of Grand Forks. Within the perimeter, six and a half acres of grasses grew higher than his knees and shrubs, though at the end of their season, were still flourishing. Where he stood, on the outside looking in, the same shrub species were chewed down to their roots.
Below the protected hillside in a marshy clearing, two deep muddy ruts, fresh with tire track imprints, tore through the ground, right past a yellow sign with red lines over the images of a truck, an ATV and a dirtbike. The two sides of that barbed wire fence and the toothless warning sign told a story of actions versus intentions. Now, heading into the spring, Brandow and other allies for conservation of the Gilpin-area grasslands have more reason to invest hope in new actions.
Last week, the Southern Interior Land Trust (SILT) announced the $200,000 purchase of a 270-acre private chunk of land in the vulnerable grassland landscape, with the goal of protecting that area from tromping cattle and churning tires.
When Brandow heard from rancher Leonard Mehmal that there were 270 acres up for sale, there was no doubt about what needed to be done.
“When he made that offer and gave us a realistic price,” Brandow recalled, “I turned to my son [Barry] and said, ‘If we care about Gilpin, we’ve got to find the money.’” SILT summoned funds from individual donors, the B.C. Conservation Foundation, the Wild Sheep Society of B.C. and the Grand Forks Wildlife Association to buy the land from the Mehmal family.
“I always had an interest in that property, recognizing that it is of superb value to wildlife and ecosystem health there,” said Al Preatt, the executive director of the B.C. non-profit. Preatt, a former biologist with the province, said that he had been eying the area since the early 1980s, around the same time that Brandow began pushing to bring bighorn sheep back to the Gilpin grasslands.
Most recently, the land which belonged Leonard Mehmal’s mother was privately held and used for cattle range and by people on dirt bikes and ATVs. “It’s always been sort of a free-for-all up there,” said Mehmal about the property, noting that controlling who had access to the property, and for what activities, has been tough to do. Knowing that his mother wanted to sell the land, Mehmal recognized an opportunity to entrench the land’s revitalization.
“We wanted her land to go to the right people,” Mehmal said of the property. “We feel that SILT is the right and perfect choice for the responsible long-term use of the land.”
As a member of the Grand Forks Wildlife Club, Mehmal said he’s seen deer populations continue to fall over his half century in the valley (though he’s encouraged to have seen a large number of mule deer in the hills above the SILT property recently), all despite government and organizations having mandates of conservation.
Studies and recommended adjustments to practices are one thing, the rancher said, “but what are we physically doing?” He’s hoping that SILT’s administration and expertise in grasslands management will show concrete improvements to local habitats.
From the outset though, Preatt said, SILT has its work cut out for them. The organization and allies will have to enforce the protection of the land from unwanted or potentially damaging uses in order to give it a chance to bounce back to an undisturbed state. “At least for the foreseeable future,” Preatt said, “we will have to improve [that land], to manage it to exclude cattle to allow the grasslands to recover.” Signage and maps, Preatt said, will also serve to let people on motorized recreational vehicles know that things like ATVs, snowmobiles and dirt bikes are prohibited from using the space.
“We see this as a fairly long process,” Preatt said. “There’s going to have to be an education component in this. People are just going to have to get used to the idea that the property has been purchased for another use.” That’s not to say that visitors will be excluded from exploring the grasslands, the former biologist said, encouraging people to take in the sights and wildlife viewing opportunities on foot in the future. “‘Enjoy nature,’ is basically is what we’re saying – as long as it’s safe legal, and [protects] the integrity of the land.”
Brandow, for his part, is sitting on 2,000 fence posts he’s recently bought with the intention of staking an immediate impact on the SILT land. Mehmal’s bought in too, looking forward to supporting SILT’s reclamation efforts.
“It will come around,” he said, “it will change it from what it is now to something super special.”