Western Watersheds Project and Ruby Pipeline LLC Establish a Multi-million Dollar Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund to Restore Sage-steppe Habitat by Buying and Retiring Public Land Grazing Permits From Willing Sellers !

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Western Watersheds Project is well known for its ability to litigate bad management decisions by the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. With our partners at Advocates for the West and many other conservation groups, WWP has a remarkable history of legal success that has catalyzed long-needed changes in management that will protect western watersheds and wildlife.

However, Western Watersheds Project is not a one dimensional group.

Over the last several months Western Watersheds Project entered into talks with Ruby Pipeline LLC (Ruby), a subsidiary of El Paso Corporation, that has expressed interest in investing in meaningful ecological mitigation measures for its planned 680 mile Ruby natural gas pipeline to be built from Opal, Wyoming to Malin, Oregon.

After much thoughtful negotiation, Western Watersheds Project and Ruby Pipeline, LLC have struck a deal establishing the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund with a mission of buying and retiring federal grazing permits that are voluntarily offered. The Fund will receive $15,000,000 from Ruby over ten years. In return WWP has agreed not to litigate or seek delay in the construction of the Ruby pipeline.

Western Watersheds Project is confident that the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund will prove to be part of a major shift in the way western public lands are managed. Having the financial support of a major American corporation will help shift the discussion about public lands ranching and help accomplish WWP’s mission to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife.

Here is a link to the joint Ruby/WWP/ONDA News Release:

Read WWP, ONDA, and Ruby's joint News Release

And read a recent article in the Elko Daily Free Press:

El Paso Cuts Deal With Western Watersheds

ADELLA HARDING Free Press Staff Writer | Posted: Friday, July 16, 2010 11:11 pm |

ELKO — El Paso Corp. has reached a precedent-setting, $20 million arrangement for habitat protection with two environmental organizations that protested the company’s planned Ruby Pipeline that will extend from Wyoming to Oregon.

The company will set up conservation funds with the Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association, and the organizations in turn are dropping objections to the natural gas pipeline.

“It’s something we didn’t have to do. We chose to do it,” El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley said Friday. “The bottom line is we think it’s a preferable approach than being involved in litigation.”

Establishment of the funds also is in line with the company’s outreach efforts to be good stewards of the land, he said. “There is the potential to do really good work,” Wheatley said.

“We agreed not to try to delay or litigate Ruby Pipeline,” confirmed Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Jon Marvel. He said El Paso will set up a $15 million conservation fund for Idaho-based Western Watersheds and a $5 million fund with the Oregon organization.

Marvel said the concept is new. He said he expects the Western Watersheds fund to eventually be used to buy grazing permits from willing ranchers, but the organization first wants Congress to approve allowing federal agencies to permanently retire grazing permits in such cases. “It’s unprecedented to have the support of industry to work for the retirement of public grazing permits,” Marvel said, emphasizing that the fund would only buy permits from willing sellers.

In the announcement, El Paso Western Pipeline Group President Jim Cleary said the “partnerships reflect El Paso Corp.’s industry-leading commitment to environmental stewardship and to this end represent a significant component of the unprecedented voluntary mitigation efforts being applied to Ruby’s construction and operation.” El Paso currently awaits a final notice to proceed from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and completion of memorandums with state historical preservation offices before the company can begin the $3 billion, 680-mile project.

Western Watersheds filed a request in April asking FERC for a rehearing on its initial approval of the pipeline project and was outspoken over concerns about the pipeline. The Oregon Natural Desert Foundation was among the organizations filing for a rehearing.

“Protecting the area around the Hart Mountain and Sheldon Refuges is critical to ensuring the survival of high desert species like sage-grouse and pronghorn antelope,” said Brent Fenty, ONDA’s executive director. “Establishing the Greater Hart-Sheldon Conservation Fund will create restoration and conservation opportunities on critical habitat spanning over 5 million acres.”

The Oregon fund will promote restoration activities, including spring restoration, fence removal, weed control, land acquisition and grazing permit retirement, according to an announcement issued Thursday.

Both agreements provide incentives for the parties to seek additional funding sources beyond Ruby’s contribution. “We hope to encourage other private and public funders to contribute to the Funds’ efforts to permanently protect and restore large areas of high desert in the region the Ruby Pipeline will pass through,” said Cleary.

Wheatley said the funds will be administered by three-member boards. Each includes a representative of El Paso, a representative of the conservation organization and a third party. “It remains to be seen how this will all unfold,” he said.

Western Watersheds and the Oregon organization won’t receive any funds directly from El Paso, but the Texas-based company will donate $20 million to the new conservation funds over a 10-year period.

Wheatley said the plan is to protect and restore large areas of the high desert where the Ruby Pipeline will pass through, and help El Paso carry out FERC’s restoration requirements.

Marvel said the agreement designates the counties through which Ruby Pipeline will pass and any counties adjacent to them for the first five years of conservation efforts, including Elko County, but the fund can cover anywhere with sagebrush habitat after the five-year period.

“The money also can be used to purchase private property or conservation easements, but our priority is grazing permits,” he said. “It’s time to end public lands grazing.” Western Watersheds maintains that an end to grazing on public lands would be better for wildlife, water quality, recreation and the environment.

Wheatley said that while the new funds are something different, El Paso entered into three conservation agreements last year valued at a combined $16 million show the company’s commitment to the environment. Those agreements were for protection of sage grouse and pygmy rabbits, migrating birds and endangered species and to meet Oregon regulatory requirements.!