Bright Future For Dark Canyon

Dark Canyon Creek Conservation Easement

Blue Mountain Land Trust
La Grande, Oregon

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For more than 100 years, Joe and Patti Cunha’s family worked this land running cattle. It’s a cursive landscape—streams and hills, salmon, and elk woven gracefully together on a working ranch along Dark Canyon Creek outside La Grande in Northeast Oregon.

In the fall of 2015, the Blue Mountain Land Trust (BMLT) completed their first major conservation project in Oregon, a conservation easement protecting nearly 3,000 acres of the Cunha ranch. The Dark Canyon conservation project will permanently exclude development and protect local fish and wildlife, all while keeping working lands intact.

The Cunha family and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have mindfully balanced the needs of the land and their livelihood.

“Everything the land trust wants for the property we want as landowners,” said Patti Cunha.

The Cunhas had worked with the tribes and state wildlife managers to restore their land over the years, but the long-term protection was not guaranteed. After significant discussions and planning, the tribes contacted the BMLT to help develop a permanent conservation easement over the property. “Grazing is a cultural tradition and a lifestyle out here,” said Tom Reilly, the newly retired conservation director of BMLT. “It can be hard on the landscape, but that’s not the case with the Cunha Ranch. This ground has been worked for a long time, and it’s in really beautiful shape.” Partners include the Bonneville Power Administration, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the Cunha family themselves, who demonstrated their commitment by selling the easement under market value.

“I went out there with tribal staff in October, probably for the last time as an employee, for monitoring,” Reilly said. “Standing there, looking out, it felt good to be a part of something so magical.”

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