Conservancy hopes to turn 352-acre ranch along Rogue River into a preserve

Southern Oregon Land Conservancy looks for grants to buy 352-acre property to conserve its unblemished habitats

  • Craig Harper of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy points out an island along the Rogue River that is included in the MacArthur family ranch the conservancy hopes to purchase and turn into a preserve.

    Craig Harper of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy points out an island along the Rogue River that is included in the MacArthur family ranch the conservancy hopes to purchase and turn into a preserve. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

    Posted Mar. 29, 2015 at 12:01 AM

    EAGLE POINT — Alicia MacArthur was in her early 20s when her father, Pulitzer Prize-winning publisher Robert Ruhl of the Medford Mail Tribune, bought a large ranch along the Rogue River off Highway 234 as a weekend getaway.

    It sported a riverside lodge in which Ruhl built an elaborate bar shaped like a boat that protruded over the river. The Ruhls regularly held weekend family outings, parties and card games there. While her mother liked to fish for salmon off the lodge lawn, MacArthur always seemed more drawn to the property’s downstream corner closer to Dodge Bridge.

    “It had big trees and a little meadow and when the violets bloomed, it was absolutely beautiful,” recalls MacArthur, 93. “I thought that was the prettiest part of the property.”

    The trees, meadow and seasonal violets that have grown there for generations could be protected for generations to come under an agreement meant to keep the ranch’s habitats intact, nurtured and unscathed by development.

    The MacArthur family plans to sell the ranch to the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy if the 37-year-old nonprofit can land enough grants and donations. This one purchase would grow its holdings by more than 11 times.

    The ranch was appraised at $3 million, but the MacArthurs gave the conservancy a bargain sale agreement for $2.4 million, allowing the conservancy to use that savings as matching money toward state and federal grants needed before the purchase agreement expires in fall 2016.

    During its tenure here, the conservancy has purchased or been donated conservation easements that protect more than 9,760 acres, making it the largest regional conservancy in Oregon.

    But it actually owns just one parcel, a 31-acre site on Williams Creek in Josephine County.

    When it comes to ownership in the land-conservation world, this makes buying what the SOLC plans to call the MacArthur Rogue River Preserve akin to moving from a mobile home to a mansion.

    It’s an uphill financial struggle, but conservation project manager Craig Harper believes the SOLC will be the little conservancy that could.

    “For us to purchase a 352-acre ranch is a real challenge, but that’s what we’re aiming at,” Harper says. “The opportunity to conserve this would be lost if this property were divided and sold into 5-acre lots with mansions.”

    During a stroll through the property on a sunny Thursday, Harper passionately describes why he believes this purchase needs to become a reality.

    The property is a mosaic of the different types of habitats that once dominated the upper Rogue River Basin but largely have given way over time to cleared cattle pastures, ranchettes and dream homes.

    The lands near Upper River Road are chaparral boasting buck brush that help draw black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk. Vernal pools dot the landscape that eventually becomes meadows sprinkled with natural springs, extremely rare white fairy poppy plants and surprisingly few blackberries.

    Much of the ranch is unblemished by non-native vegetation, but even some of the invasive plants that are present are losing ground naturally. A hefty population of gall mites is killing off the scotch broom with a success rate that impresses SOLC botanist Kristi Mergenthaler.

    “This is the headquarters for the scotch broom gall mite,” Mergenthaler says. “Twenty to 30 percent of the plants are dead or dying. That’s one reason alone this land is special.”

    The property’s brightest gem, however, is its mature and largely streamside oak woodlands, the second largest intact riparian forest along 100 miles of the Rogue. The only larger one is the publicly owned and primarily unreachable oak woodlands around the now-removed Gold Ray Dam impoundment.

    “That’s what’s so amazing about this site,” Harper says. “It’s so big and it’s in such good shape. The native vegetation is doing very well and we want to keep it that way.”

    The first steps toward a chance to do that will come in April when a SOLC steering committee meets and starts making decisions about management plans, conservation guidelines and funding sources that favor those plans.

    Harper says the conservancy is eyeing everything from the Oregon Lottery-fed Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and special federal funds through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for tapping.

    “How we manage it will determine what kind of funding we get,” Harper says.

    The conservancy also hasn’t yet figured out how public this ranch would be if it’s purchased. When it comes to conserving natural places, too many people is generally not considered a good thing.

    “I think there is a lot of opportunity for limited public access,” Harper says. “We just haven’t figured that out yet.”

    Also unsolved is to what degree the property could be turned into a working ranch again.

    Thick patches of incense cedar have sprung up in recent decades after intensive cattle grazing ended decades ago.

    “The ground has healed very well,” he says.

    But cattle could be invited back to help keep grasses from overrunning the ranch’s vernal pools — a growing practice amid vernal-pool management in the region, Harper says.

    “We want to protect and enhance those features while still allowing a working component to it,” Harper says.

    Conservancy staff such as Mergenthaler are currently surveying the land for plant species and habitats. Eventually they will strike out toward the roughly 10-acre island that regularly sports elk that move among the ranch and other large tracts on the other side of the Rogue.

    “I can’t wait to get on that island and see what’s there,” Harper says. “We better take a machete to hack our way through.”

    Conservancy officials also have made no decision about what to do with the old lodge, which now serves as a residence for the property’s on-site caretaker.

    “The lodge is a whole different story,” Harper says. “We don’t know what we can do with it. It’s old. It’s flood-prone. But it’s historic.

    “It could be a liability, or it could be a benefit,” he says.

    For the MacArthurs, the ranch again became a weekend getaway in 1966 when Alicia returned to Medford with her six children. Her husband, John MacArthur, had died in a climbing accident while the family was living in the Middle East, where John was working on a large water project.

    Robert Ruhl had deeded the ranch to Alicia in the early 1950s, though he continued to use it until his death in 1967.

    The bar Ruhl built had washed away in the 1964 flood, but the property remained largely unchanged.

    “I used to take my children out and picnic on the property,” MacArthur says. “I liked to go out and hunt for stones.”

    Her children eventually moved away from the area. Fourteen years ago, MacArthur moved outside of Philadelphia to be near two of her daughters. It is time, she says, to let the property go.

    “My children’s children are college-age now, so need I say more?” she says. “They could use the money.”

    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.