Former Baker County Commissioner highlighted by USDA for Sage Grouse habitat

By on Wednesday, March 6th, 2024 in More Top Stories Northeastern Oregon News

BAKER COUNTY — Former Baker County commissioner Mark Bennett and his wife Patti were recently highlighted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their protection of sage grouse habitats through land easements. 

Bennett, who owns a cattle ranch near Unity in Baker County, served as county commissioner for nine years before retiring in 2023. Before that, he worked for Baker County in a number of roles, including the county’s emergency manager. 

Below is the text of the feature story released by the USDA:

       Bennett Family Protects Sage-Grouse Habitat with Agricultural Land Easements

Secret Valley Ranch

Tucked in a valley along West Camp Creek in Baker County, Oregon, the Secret Valley Ranch stretches from the Wallowa Whitman National Forest on its southern border to Higgins Reservoir in the north. The Elkhorn Mountains rise on the distant skyline, which seems to go on forever.

About the Property

Secret Valley Ranch, comprising 8,877 acres, is considered one of eastern Oregon’s greatest ranches. As landowners, Mark and Patti Bennett have been stewarding Secret Valley Ranch for decades to improve grassland conditions for cattle and wildlife. For them, conservation and agriculture go hand in hand. Their efforts to restore, protect, and improve the ecosystem have built a model for other landowners to follow.

The Bennetts’ approach to rotational grazing, consistent rangeland monitoring, and adaptive management techniques are obvious indicators that Mark and Patti have led both their business and land stewardship models with future generations of animal and human inhabitants in mind. Throughout the years, the Bennetts have completed many improvement projects across Secret Valley’s vast landscape. Their goals were two-fold:  safeguard and improve the property’s sage-grouse population and maintain their family’s cattle operation and agricultural business.

Why the Landowner Chose Permanent Protection

The conservation easement protects both sides of the ranch. One is recognizing its high-quality sagebrush steppe habitat that is home to sage-grouse and redband trout. The other is its economic and social importance as a holistically grazed working cattle ranch.

The easement blends ecological protections and habitat goals with the operational needs of a ranch, incorporating a grazing management plan and continuing the rangeland monitoring at sites Mark established years ago.

How the Land was Protected

In a partnership between the Blue Mountain Land Trust and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easement (ACEP-ALE), a conservation easement on the Secret Valley Ranch was completed.

ACEP-ALE protects the agricultural viability and related conservation values of eligible land by limiting nonagricultural uses which negatively affect agricultural and conservation values. It also protects grazing and related conservation values by conserving eligible grazing land.

ACEP-ALE helps private and tribal landowners, land trusts, and other entities such as state and local governments protect croplands and grasslands on working farms and ranches by limiting nonagricultural uses of the land through easements.

What was Accomplished

The Bennetts wanted to protect the land for the following generation. They went through the process with their family and realized they weren’t going to come back and run the ranch and realized the ranch would be vulnerable. There was potential the property could be segmented.

As Mark and Patti look toward the future and the promise of another family one day taking ownership, they can be assured their efforts will leave a Secret Valley Ranch with bountiful resources for the next generation of ranching.

About the Partners

Blue Mountain Land Trust

Blue Mountain Land Trust is a nationally accredited nonprofit land trust working in southeastern Washington and eastern Oregon. Its mission is to protect the scenic, natural, and working lands of the Blue Mountain region through conservation and stewardship and connect communities to nature through education and recreation.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

NRCS provides America’s farmers and ranchers with financial and technical assistance to voluntarily put conservation on the ground, helping the environment and agricultural operations. To find out more, visit