Land conservation easement benefits Wallowa County farm

By Dick Mason for The La Grande Observer@lgoMason

Woody Wolfe, a man who is often thinking ahead, took a step back in time Friday afternoon while leading a tour of his family’s 1,700-acre farm.

Wolfe looked southeast while standing near the confluence of the Lostine and Wallowa rivers and recalled the words of Old Chief Joseph, who died in 1871. The Nez Perce chief’s original burial site was on a hillside with a view of the circuitous Wallowa and Lostine rivers running through the property owned by Wolfe and his family.

The site was a fitting initial resting place for Old Chief Joseph, whose remains were moved to Wallowa Lake years later.

Wolfe said young Chief Joseph s aid he buried his father “in the land of the winding waters. I loved that land more than all the rest.’’

Chief Joseph would have been pleased with what he saw. Wolfe was leading a tour of local and state leaders, explaining to them how 197 acres of his land is now permanently off limits for subdividing and residential development, and in the future another 255 acres may be protected.

This is a credit to a conservation easement program that is allowing Wolfe to protect his land from development. Friday’s tour, conducted by the Wallowa Land Trust, was for elected government officials and their representatives. Its aim was to encourage them to get the state to provide more funding for conservation easements, said Kathleen Ackley, executive director of the Wallowa Land Trust, a non-profit dedicated to conserving land in the region.

The 197 acres of land now off limits to subdividing and residential development is the result of a sale of a conservation easement by the Wolfe family to the Wallowa Land Trust. The Wolfe family can still farm the land but it can’t develop it or do anything that would damage the fish and wildlife habitat, Ackley said.

Wolfe and the Wallowa Land Trust are now negotiating the sale of a similar conservation easement for 255 acres adjacent to the 197-acre parcel. The Wallowa Land Trust has lined up donors for the purchase of the easement; those who have committed funding include the Nez Perce Tribe, the Bergstrom Foundation, the Healy Foundation, and the Hells Canyon, Eagle Cap Land and Restoration

Sub-fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.

The Wallowa Land Trust has also applied for a major grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the remainder of the conservation easement purchase. Should this grant be provided, the conservation easement purchase could be final within three months, Ackley said.

“If we get this grant we will hit the ground running,” Ackley said.

Greg Kuehl of the Natural Resources Conservation Service said during the tour that the Wolfe Farm, two miles east of Wallowa, is near the top of the list of grant applicants. The reasons he listed include wildlife habitat rated highly by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and its historic value, for the Wolfe Farm has been in operation since 1897.

Wolfe believes the conservation easement may ultimately increase the worth of his land.

“It may add to the value of the property if open space is in short supply,” Wolfe said.

Ackley said that in states like Washington and California it’s easier to get conservation easements because there is more state funding supporting them.

“Washington and California have more robust (farm and ranch land protection) programs,” Ackley said.

She said that in Oregon there are many farmers who, like Wolfe, want to maintain their farmland and habitat for wildlife rather than subdivide it. Those farmers would be helped by conservation easements.

“They are good stewards who want help with what they are doing,” Ackley said.

Unfortunately for conservationists, some landowners feel compelled to subdivide because they can’t make ends meet by running a farm.

“The conservation easement is a tool to keep this from happening,” Ackley said.