Working ranch becomes part of conserved Greater Yellowstone region

Conservancy closes agreement with local landowner to protect large area bordering national forest

Henry's Lake, Idaho | December 10, 2012

Spring on the Johnson ranch
The Johnson Ranch on Henry's Lake. Photo by Chet Work/The Nature Conservancy. 


HENRY'S LAKE, IDAHO — Conservation in the Greater Yellowstone region gained ground this week when The Nature Conservancy in Idaho secured protection of one of the largest intact private parcels in the Henry’s Lake area – more than 560 acres of open space bordering the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. 

The Conservancy and local rancher, Deborah Empey, signed an agreement ensuring the long-term conservation of the parcel – her family’s working ranch and a wildlife haven. Animals inhabiting the area include mule and white-tailed deer, long-billed curlews, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, brown and black bears, moose, bald eagles and sandhill cranes. 

“It would be hard to imagine my life without the ranch in it,” Empey said. “I couldn't let go of the memories of the openness. If you have the help of a group like The Nature Conservancy, this conservation easement helps preserve my family’s tradition and the integrity of nature for everyone down the road.” 

A conservation easement is a voluntary, legally binding agreement that compensates landowners for limiting certain types of uses or restricts development on a property. 

Empey and her brother inherited the ranch from their father, Wayne Johnson. He purchased the property in 1947 from Fred and Lula Kelly. The property was historically a working livestock ranch, as it will continue to be under the conservation easement. 

“My parents were adamant about the area being as undeveloped as possible. When we were little there was only one light across the lake,” Empey said. “I remember when people started moving in, there were more lights around the lake. To my parents those lights signaled a change and they were very aware of what could happen and didn't want to have never-ending homes and development.” 

Empey worked with the Conservancy to protect 50 acres of her property in 2008. This week’s agreement added another 515 acres to the total area protected. 

Over the past decade, Empey partnered with Idaho Department of Fish and Game to improve habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the property. They installed fencing to protect Spring Creek and Duck Creek, tributaries of Henry’s Lake, and installed fish-friendly culverts and drop pools. “Within the space of five years, the fish have returned, the streams are healing and it’s just phenomenal,” Empey said. 

The Conservancy intends to transfer the conservation easement to the Bureau of Land Management in the coming years. 

Joe Kraayenbrink, BLM Idaho Falls District Manager, commented, “The BLM is very happy that Debbie Empey chose to conserve this outstanding ranch rather than seeking to develop the property. This effort is a significant contribution to an assemblage of conserved properties in the Henry’s Lake area that will now total approximately 4,700 acres." 

The Greater Yellowstone region, a refuge for wildlife and hub for outdoor recreation, is among one of the Conservancy’s top conservation priorities in Idaho and the Western region. 

“Debbie Empey is an inspiration to me,” said Susanna Danner, Director of Protection for the Conservancy. “Many of Idaho’s important animal migrations cross over private land. Partnerships with private landowners like Debbie are key to protecting open spaces on a scale that matters for wildlife. Her vision of an intact Henry’s Lake, complete with working ranches and alive with plants and animals, is a vision of hope in this holiday season.”

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.

Contact information

Susanna Danner
Director of Protection
(208) 350-2208


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