SILVIES A quiet transformation is under way at the vast Silvies Valley Ranch one that could seed new opportunities across the economic landscape of Grant and Harney counties.
Since buying the ranch three years ago, Scott Campbell has focused on restoring its hay meadows, riparian areas, springs and native vegetation. Now he and his partners propose to develop an upscale guest ranch that will draw well-heeled tourists interested in the wildlife, scenic vistas and the ranch life of the West.
The vision: Visitors would jet into the airstrip on the ranch south of Seneca or the Grant County Regional Airport to stay in luxury cabins, view wildlife, relax at a day spa, golf on a world-class course, tour habitat restoration projects, and enjoy fine dining at a four-star restaurant in the main lodge.
If all goes as planned, Campbell estimates that the guest ranch could employ 150-200 people from Grant and Harney counties. He also envisions ripple effects for local businesses restaurants, galleries, guide services and more as visitors explore off the ranch.
It could make a big difference to both of the counties, he said recently.
He also sees it as a way to showcase the compatibility of natural resource protection and ranching.
Ranchers do a lot of good environmental work that they never get credit for, he said. Most ranchers are very environmentally conscious. They do a lot of this kind of work; they just cant all afford to promote it.
Campbell sees the guest ranch as one way to do that. The ranch would bring in speakers to talk about the ecosystem and offer tours of the restoration work under way onsite, and he believes his visitors would eat it up.
We can set an example where environmentalists can really respect what ranchers are doing, he said.
The next steps
The guest ranch is still in the planning stages, with a goal of opening in 2015. Before that happens, there are a couple of political hurdles to clear.
The first is to get local officials to expand the Grant County Enterprise Zone to include a small portion of the ranch. The zone provides a temporary property tax break for new structures and equipment that bring along new, local jobs.
Campbell said he doesnt expect the ranch resort to make money, but he does want it to become self-sufficient. That may take 10 years, he said, so the enterprise zone status even for just three years would be important.
The County Court last week agreed to begin the process to extend the zone.
The next challenge is to get legislators to revise the states guest ranch law, which currently doesnt allow units to be sold. Campbell said that while rental guest cabins could accommodate 50-70 couples, he also wants to sell vacation cabins.
Campbell said the sales would be essential to the business because of the year-round maintenance fees they would generate. He stressed that these units would not be primary residences; the owners would be limited to stays of a few weeks each year. That way, local schools and taxing districts wont be burdened with new demand for services, but they could see additional tax revenue, he said.
Hes optimistic that the Legislature will adjust the law next session. Theres no downside, he said, especially in the states remote rural reaches, where economic development opportunities are scarce.
Campbells research tells him theres a demand for such an eco-resort, and that 30 percent of the visitors would come from Oregon, 30 percent from other states, and 40 percent from western Europe and Asia.
The resort plan grew out of a desire to boost the fortunes of his home state.
The question is, he said, how do you bring money into the county? How do you bring it into the state?
The answer he came up with is a signature place that attracts wealthy people with an interest in Oregon, nature and golf.
Meanwhile, what drives Campbell is a love of the land and the Silvies Valley in particular.
My familys lived in Eastern Oregon since 1862, he said. I grew up in Soldier Creek, which is not very far as the crow flies.
Campbell went to school in Burns, and he has fond memories of hunting elk in the area, and riding and team-roping in Seneca.
He went on to get both a bachelors degree and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at Oregon State University, and then grew a small veterinary hospital practice into the largest veterinary business in the world, Banfield Pet Hospital. Today, he divides his time between the ranch and Portland, where he and his wife Sandy settled. They have two sons, one at OSU and one in high school.
Restoration work ongoing
As the guest ranch issues are settled, Campbell and his partners Robb Foster and Keith Baltzor are proceeding with the restoration work on the ranch. Its a massive undertaking The ranch spans the Silvies Valley and includes 40,000 deeded acres, with leased acreage more than tripling that figure.
Over the past three years, theyve recovered many acres of meadow by burning off encroaching sage. But rather than wholesale burnoffs, theyve left a mosaic pattern to provide habitat for species that rely on sage, as well as bitterbrush and other plants favored by deer, elk and antelope.
Theyve also reclaimed springs that had become trampled or clogged, cut out invading junipers and planted trees a lot of trees.
We planted 10,000 trees last year, and 10,000 more this year, Campbell said.
Some plantings will help re-establish the three-tiered ecosystem required by songbirds, and provide fodder for the beavers that Campbell says are essential to maintaining healthy wetlands and aquifers. There are about 72 beaver colonies on the Silvies River through the ranch today, a paltry number compared to the 200,000 beavers that lived in the valley before trappers cleaned them out in the early 1800s.
The recent plantings include aspens, a favorite food of beavers, but those trees will need protection until the groves are well established.
Meanwhile, several creek drainages have been transformed from dry sagelands to hay meadows.
Campbell hired Grayback Forestry to install rock weirs using material from the ranch on those creeks to slow the flow and push more water back into the natural aquifer. The weirs also catch silt during the spring runoff, raising the creek bed and thus the water table back up to where it should be.
In relatively short order, there are successes to be seen. Campbell points out a creek that used to shoot downhill at the bottom of a 12-foot ditch. Now, even in October, it flows along in a wide course, with occasional pools spreading water beyond the willows into the meadows.
Near the ranchs Bridge Creek buildings, an 1960s-era reservoir has been repaired so it not only stores water for flood irrigation, but also provides habitat to attract birds and antelope.
Its providing a lot of habitat that wasnt here before, he said. The birds just flock to it.
People driving through the valley may not notice the changes yet, but they are sure to see the new buildings. There are six new homes nearing completion that will be used by the partners and resident workers on the ranch, plus a number of livestock barns and shop buildings to support the cattle operation.
Campbell also plans to restore the old Silvies townsite as a rest stop for travelers. The old schoolhouse and wagon shed will be preserved, and a public restroom will be added.
If the guest ranch plan proceeds, the ranchs airstrip also will see changes. The existing 6,000-foot strip can accommodate small jets, but Campbell said it should be widened and thickened for the use it could see in the future.
Golf course tees off
Work has already begun on the golf course, with approval of the Grant County Planning Department.
Campbell said the new course could be a big draw for resort patrons.
The hottest thing in golf right now is making it environmentally friendly, he said.
There will be a driving range and a 9-hole par-3 course, but the star of the show will be a course laid out for a total of 36 holes of play in two 18-hole configurations. The course is reversible, allowing play in different directions on different days.
To keep it environmentally friendly, the course will be seeded with hybrids of Idaho fescue and the fairways will
wind through stretches of natural vegetation: ponderosa pines, sage and other brush, aspens and mountain mahogany.
Youll play through three or four major environmental zones on this course, Campbell said. The vistas wont be interrupted by buildings, either. Unlike golf courses elsewhere that are ringed by homes, the Silvies Valley course is being built at a distance from any guest cabins or ranch buildings.
A well on a hill above the course will provide water in a gravity-fed irrigation system. Campbell said each irrigation sprinkler will have its own computerized setting to avoid wasting water or over-watering the grasses.
Campbell brought in Dan Hixson, a noted golf course designer, to tailor the course to suit golfers and also fit into the native landscape.
This course is going to set a new standard, Campbell said.
Golf at Silvies Valley Ranch may be expensive by local standards, but not for the world travelers Campbell expects to see. He plans to set up a local discount program to make it more affordable for members of clubs in Grant and Harney Counties to try the course.
He said people will have to have a membership in the local clubs to take advantage of the discount, however, because he doesnt want his course to undercut the local membership numbers.
Like the guest ranch, the golf course opening is a few years off. Campbell projects a 2015 for the course to allow time for the vegetation to mature.