fat wallet runs through it
Sunday, March 04, 2007
By RICHARD COCKLE
JOSEPH -- Not wanting his Ferrari's paint chipped by gravel, a landowner recently asked when workers from cash-strapped Wallowa County planned to pave the 21/2-mile road to his ranch.
A homeowner near Wallowa Lake wanted county commissioners to do something about the manure from horses that people ride on the road outside her house.
And just about every year, county officials have to explain to newcomers that the commotion of ranchers baling hay after midnight is sometimes necessary to guarantee enough dew to hold together the alfalfa leaves.
The complaints underscore the potential for cultural collisions when well-heeled urbanites move to ranch country.
Oregon State University researchers call it "amenity migration": People in search of lifestyle changes are flocking to the West and helping transform it into the fastest-growing region in America.
The wealthiest are spending millions on "trophy ranches," where they fly in to fish, hunt and seek privacy, said Hannah Gosnell, an assistant geosciences professor at OSU.
"These ranches they are buying are the biggest chunks of privately owned open space and habitat in the country," she said.
In a new study, Gosnell and other researchers found that amenity buyers acquired almost 40 percent of ranches that changed hands in a four-state area around Yellowstone National Park. Only 26 percent of the sales went to traditional buyers who planned to earn their livelihoods raising cattle.
The trend is carrying into Oregon, part of the "River Runs Through It" phenomenon, Gosnell said.
The 1992 movie -- based on a memoir by Norman MacLean about his boyhood spent fly-fishing in Montana's great trout rivers -- prompted hundreds of people to look for ranches on trout rivers, including northeastern Oregon's Minam, Grande Ronde, Imnaha and Wallowa rivers.
Wallowa County, where 7,100 people live in a picturesque region of mountains and canyons the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, may offer the best example of the transition in Oregon.
County Commissioner Dan DeBoie can't recall a single buyer in recent years who intended to make a ranch pay strictly on cattle production.
Absentee owners hold 62 percent of the county's private land, including commercial timberland, according to the Wallowa County assessor's office.
Inevitably, the newcomers change the places they come to enjoy.
"The West is becoming more and more like the rest of the country, and less unique," Gosnell said.
Pros and cons
The typical amenity ranch buyer is a multimillionaire baby boomer who grew up watching "Bonanza" and Roy Rogers on television and dreaming of owning a ranch someday, Gosnell said.
They displace longtime ranch owners, drive up land prices and appropriate huge blocks of some of the West's most important lands, often encompassing habitat and wildlife migration corridors, she said.
A sluggish agricultural economy and the aging of longtime ranchers contribute to the trend, the research showed. Grown children of traditional ranch families often are reluctant to take over because of the hard work and difficulty making a living.
The new ranchers sometimes mystify or annoy longtime residents. Hailing from urban centers, they occasionally oppose hunting, deny access to traditional recreation areas and even regard wolves as just another amenity, Gosnell said.
On the other hand, the newcomers sometimes bring energy and ideas to rural communities, she said. They also tend not to break up ranches, which would put critical habitat at risk. Some restore native ecosystems and undertake large-scale conservation projects.
Amenity owners employ local people as ranch managers -- jobs that the locals humorously dub "mouse trappers" and "ranch butlers" -- but they offer good salaries and benefits, Gosnell said. And they keep construction contractors busy building new homes.
"The majority of them I have met are great people," said Wallowa County rancher Rod Childers. "A lot of these guys, they come in and support the county."
Land at a premium
At the same time, Wallowa County has experienced some of the downsides.
Ranch prices jumped in the past decade and the value of other properties rose as the inventory of available property fell, said Joseph real estate broker Kent Sands.
"People are buying with an urgency," he said. "They are thinking they have to buy now or they are going to get left out."
City dwellers fuel the market, Sands said. People who paid $100,000 for a home 30 years ago in urban centers are retiring, selling their houses for $1 million and coming here, he said. Flush with equity, they regard land prices in Wallowa County as cheap.
The inventory of available property is half what it was two or three years ago, he said. The heightened demand also leaves little affordable housing for the local labor force -- some home prices have more than doubled in the past two years, he said.
"Obviously, that doesn't pencil out when you are making $15 an hour," Sands said.
Much of the real estate shortage stems from the county's sizable -- 62 percent -- chunk of federal land. Land-use laws prevent breaking up most private parcels into units smaller than 160 or 240 acres.
Another economic dilemma: The new ranch owners are raising fewer cows, most likely because they're less driven by the need to make a profit. Wallowa County has seen a 10 percent drop in cattle numbers in the past decade, a reduction of 3,000 cows, said John Williams, an OSU extension agent in Enterprise.
Fewer cows mean diminished sales of feed, fence posts, pickups and other ranch staples by local businesses, Williams said.
"The county really needs the ranches to stay in production," he said.
Rising land prices mean cattlemen now rent rangeland from the newcomers.
"You end up being more of a sharecropper county, like it was years ago," Childers said.
It's not clear how long the trend will last.
Ranch buyers often are absentee owners who live elsewhere a good part of the year. Many of the other newcomers remain in the county only three to five years, locals say, then go somewhere else that's more settled, with shopping malls, theaters, golf courses and other amenities.
Sherri Kilgore, principal of Joseph High School, said transplants initially are charmed by the county's remoteness. But it's a 300-mile drive to Portland, and it gets lonely here for people accustomed to a fast-paced, urban life, she said.
Countywide, school enrollments declined from 426 students in 1990 to 250 this year, in part because newcomers' children are grown, Kilgore said. Joseph High School's 2007 graduating class is 26; next year's freshman class will be about 11.
It's not an unusual pattern: The county's population is smaller now than in 1920, when census workers counted 9,778 people. In addition, more than 20 percent of the county's population is older than 65, one of only five Oregon counties over the 20 percent mark in that age group, according to the Population Research Center at Portland State University.
"Enrollment continues to go down," Kilgore said. "What stays are these beautiful, expensive homes that sit empty."
Most amenity ranch buyers are in their 50s and 60s, and their adult children aren't products of a steady childhood diet of TV cowboys, Gosnell said. They might not want the ranches when their parents are gone.
"There is a lot of uncertainty about what will come of these ranches," she said. "Maybe real agriculturalists will be able to buy them again."
Richard Cockle: 541-963-8890; firstname.lastname@example.org
Article Courtesy of OregonLive.com at OregonLive.com: Everything Oregon