A Fat Wallet Runs Through it - by Richard Cockle

Fish Bones

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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.

Short timers

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; [email protected]

Article Courtesy of OregonLive.com at OregonLive.com: Everything Oregon
 

BigCliff

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That last sentence sounds about right to me. I bet there will be some "bargains" to be had when some of those wealthy folks become a bit less "independent" and need to live some where a bit less isolated.

But it is somewhat sad to think about how our current increase in income inequality is leading to a small group of people owning a huge and growing amount of what can be owned in this country.
 

Fly2Fish

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I see this happening more and more in New Mexico, a state I came to love over 30 years ago (but could never make the living I make there). Now when I'm looking to buy in there, I see the hyper-inflated California housing market gains being moved there and driving prices up in the whole state like was only the case with Santa Fe before. :icon_cry:
 
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Obviously this trend is going to slow now with the current crisis and mortgage fiascos. We may be seeing the beginning of the turnaround. This has been happening everywhere in the country with few exceptions.
 

Flytrap

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The article complains about $15/hr wages? Here in central WI tht'd be considered pretty d**n good! The average is closer to $10!
 

cmiddleton

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bad things come with it, where i hunt there is a big private land ranches who let vary little hunting of the elk.
the elk have learned to run there during hunting season.
now the game and fish say the carrying capacity of the areas around this ranch is 3500 elk the lack of hunting has the herd at over 8000.
its only one bad winter away from a devastating winter kill.
the elk population has diminished the mule deer populations in the area.
they have over browsed the aspens to the point the state has to do controlled burns to get regrowth of aspens at the expense of the tax payers.
the old rancher did survay's and let hunters in to keep the elk and deer to a healthy levels
we use to go fight fires on it when the old rancher had it, if it burns now i'll bring the marshmellows.
 

FlyRichardFly

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if it burns now i'll bring the marshmellows.
LOL! So funny!
Our country has eliminated the middle class and the unfair distribution of wealth is widening every year.
"With, without, and who'll deny that's what the fighting's all about" - Pink Floyd
Just like the fires that are intentionally started in CA every year to burn out the rich, when the poster signs go up we'll see the same thing there. I'll bring some marshmellows too!
I predict that in the near future: The rich guys will buy all the good fishing areas and put up No Tresspassing signs!!
Our economy favors guys like Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay..... people who can lie much better than the guy on a previous post who makes $10 a hour!!
Great article, very sad to me, this is what our country has become.
 

rifflerat

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Why is it always Californians that everyone assumes are buying all the property up. On my last trip to Montana, 90% of the out of state plates were Washington.
 

Guest1

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Why is it always Californians that everyone assumes are buying all the property up. On my last trip to Montana, 90% of the out of state plates were Washington.
It might have to do with the high profile Californians that have moved there. One famous moron can completely obscure dozens of Washintonites...Washintonians...Washingtellians...what do you call them? I have a lot of family in Montana. Ted Turner, Hanoi Jane, Andie MacDowell and a bunch of the likes have come there and generally PO'd the locals. Ted and Jane showed up at a resturant my dad was in and... well it's a good story. My Neice is a disc jockey in Billings. Sam Elliot lives just out of town and became a fan of hers. She was telling me how he sent gift certificates for resturants for her and called the station all the time. I told her "I'm jealous. I've never had a celebrity stalker." They tend to stick out more than the Wasingtonodians....Washingtoners...whatever.
 

BigSky

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Boy I just love all the comments directly stating or implying that somehow it's unfair that some have more than others. Trust me, I'm one of the have-nots who, because of the system in which we live, hopes to be one of the haves someday. Having said that, the worse result of the situation described in the article is the infection of the ills those coming here are "trying" to leave. They (not all) come here for the quality of life I live. Yet, they (once again, not all of them) try to change things here to the way things are in the area from whence they came, thus creating an environment which, in my opinion, will lead to the same "lesser quality of life" they intended to leave behind.
 

kaleun

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Boy I just love all the comments directly stating or implying that somehow it's unfair that some have more than others. Trust me, I'm one of the have-nots who, because of the system in which we live, hopes to be one of the haves someday. Having said that, the worse result of the situation described in the article is the infection of the ills those coming here are "trying" to leave. They (not all) come here for the quality of life I live. Yet, they (once again, not all of them) try to change things here to the way things are in the area from whence they came, thus creating an environment which, in my opinion, will lead to the same "lesser quality of life" they intended to leave behind.
Hear Hear! Equality for all means equal misery for most and incredible perks for the few with connections.
 

moucheur2003

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That article was written 7 years ago, before the financial system collapsed. Since then the price of trophy ranch properties has collapsed too. I imagine the phenomenon is not quite as pronounced now as it was then.
 

mtbusman

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It might have to do with the high profile Californians that have moved there. One famous moron can completely obscure dozens of Washintonites...Washintonians...Washingtellians...what do you call them?
We have a guy out our way that tried to close a county road (gravel) that ran through the ranch he bought because of the dust that was produced. The road has been there since the early days . . . and his attempts to close it failed. This guy was from Florida.

They come from all over. My guess is they want a private little piece of paradise. Not all of them total disregard local customs, but some do.

On a positive note: if your state has a stream access law like here in Montana, support it and work to protect it! Otherwise, public waters can be closed off.
 

bigspencer

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.........I predict that in the near future: The rich guys will buy all the good fishing areas and put up No Tresspassing signs!!
"In the near future"????..Richard...have you been living under a rock? ..or something....has been happenning for decades
 
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itchmesir

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The article complains about $15/hr wages? Here in central WI tht'd be considered pretty d**n good! The average is closer to $10!
That's because we're here in the Midwest... Simple folk who can still figure out how to make a living off a small wage and still own an arsenal of fly gear... Priorities first... Amenities... Meh.
 

wjc

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Originally Posted by FlyRichardFly View Post
.........I predict that in the near future: The rich guys will buy all the good fishing areas and put up No Tresspassing signs!
They don't even have to buy BLM land - they can just lease it, with the right connections.

When I lived in the Eagle River valley in Colorado, some hunting club from Texas leased hundreds of square miles of prime Elk, deer, sage hen, and ptarmigan land on the west side of the road to State Bridge - formerly open to public hunting.

Then after the fence, locked gates and "Posted -No Trespassing" signs were put up, they quit makinig their lease payments. It had to have cost a fortune for the fencing.

Fortunately, one of my buddies found out, and ripped out the gates with his truck. But nobody removed either the fence or the "posted' signs - way too many of them. But the locals knew it was open to the public.

It's probably still fenced today, with another group leasing it since the fence was still up when I left 30 years ago.
 
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