Rock on: Obama initiative may give public more of Table Rocks

The public will ultimately own a bigger piece of the rock, thanks to a recent decree by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The department announced that both Upper and Lower Table rocks near the Rogue River are among the 101 top conservation sites in President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative. The initiative is intended to establish a 21st-century conservation and recreation effort to reconnect people to the outdoors.

Locally, it means some of the federal spending on land and water conservation likely will trickle down to allow the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to purchase a little more than 800 acres of land on Upper Table Rock that The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group, bought in 2009.

"This creates a priority to get money down here to purchase some of the land The Nature Conservancy had already bought," said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the BLM's Medford District.

"They are designated areas of environmental concern because of the fairy shrimp and rare plants found there," he added. "It is a very unique environment."

Fairy shrimp are a threatened species inhabiting seasonal vernal pools in the area.

The Nature Conservancy proposes to sell 813 acres of Upper Table Rock to the BLM, according to Stephen Anderson, spokesman for the group's Portland office.

In 2009, the 813 acres was valued at $2.1 million, but the price will be determined by a BLM appraisal, he said.

"It is our hope that the national attention the Table Rocks have gotten recently will help the BLM find the resources to complete this purchase and carry on the preservation," he said.

"The Table Rocks are such a unique natural and cultural landmark they deserve the kind of national attention they are getting," he added. "That is a tribute not only to the special place but also to the local community that has worked hard in a united way for so many years to protect it so the public would have access."

How much funding will be available to buy Upper Table Rock acreage adjacent to BLM property is not yet known. When the Obama administration announced the initiative early this year, it hoped to roughly double federal spending nationally on land and water conservation to $900 million to buy land for public use and provide grants to states.

Local BLM officials participated in a conference call on Monday to discuss Upper Table Rock.

The BLM now owns 1,280 acres of the Upper and Lower Table Rocks, while the conservancy has 3,591 acres, including conservation easements in which someone else owns the land but has agreed not to allow development on it.

"Between the BLM and the conservancy, we now have complete ownership of the tops and flanks of the Table Rocks," Whittington said.

In the spring of 2009, the Nature Conservancy purchased roughly 1,710 acres of private land on Lower and Upper Table Rocks for $3.9 million from the Wood Family Trust. That included the 813 acres it proposes to sell to the BLM.

The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board earmarked $1.3 million for the 2009 purchase, using Oregon Lottery revenues dedicated to restoring and protecting important natural areas in the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has designated nearly 900 acres of the purchased land as critical habitat for the fairy shrimp, provided a $500,000 grant for the acquisition. The conservancy also took out a loan to cover a portion of the purchase.

The Nature Conservancy first bought land on the Table Rocks 30 years ago to begin preserving the area.

In addition to serving as the home of rare flora and fauna, the twin volcanic rocks rising prominently above the Rogue Valley are also known for their cultural importance. In September, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde signed a memorandum of understanding with the BLM and the Nature Conservancy that places the tribe as equal partners in future management of Upper and Lower Table Rocks. Tribal members are descendants of the indigenous people forced by the U.S. Army to leave the valley for a reservation to the north in 1856.

For 25 years, the BLM and the conservancy have provided guided tours each spring and summer on the Table Rocks, which are now visited by some 45,000 people annually.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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