Building Trust in the Great Wallowas

For this issue of Issue I was going to cover the militia take-over and stand off at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. However after talking to some of the traumatized and frustrated locals there I decided I didn’t want to be part of the media feeding frenzy that was playing right into the occupiers’ hands. So, instead of southeast Oregon, I headed to the far northeast to check on developments in the magnificent Wallowa Mountains.

The Wallowas are truly one of the Northwest’s most beautiful places. Rugged mountain peaks and the remote Eagle Cap wilderness surround a spectacular glacial lake.   The quaint little town of Joseph boasts a nationally acclaimed community of bronze sculptors and artists.

My main interest was the innovative work being done by the Wallowa Land Trust to establish a uniquely collaborative approach to protecting this magnificent landscape. In full disclosure, the Trust’s Executive Director, Kathleen Ackley, is a dear friend of mine.

The brazen takeover of public lands by the Malheur occupiers was just the latest in the ongoing controversy about public lands and whether or not private ranchers, logging and mining companies ought to be able to use those lands. With that backdrop playing out at the other end of the state I was interested in learning more about a different way of protecting important landscapes especially in regions containing a lot of public land.

In Wallowa County over 50 percent of the land base is owned by the federal or state government. During the logging boom of last century these lands generated jobs and revenues. But logging and mill jobs have been sharply curtailed due to environmental regulations and replacement of manual jobs with machination. This has taken a heavy economic toll on formerly timber-dependent communities in which vast tracts of public lands are excluded from the property tax base. One could reasonably expect the people of Wallowa County to have no interest in tying up any more land but something extraordinary is taking place in this remote community.

The Wallowa Land Trust is working to permanently protect one of the most unique and iconic landscapes in Oregon: the Moraines of Wallowa Lake.  A moraine is a mass of rock, soil and gravel carried down and deposited by glaciers.   The glacial moraines cradling Wallowa Lake are not only visually stunning, but also of great ecological and cultural significance.  They are among the most classic and complete examples of Pleistocene moraines found in North America, offering unparalleled education on glacial history and climate change.

For local residents the undeveloped crest of the East Moraine is the iconic visual image of present day Wallowa County and an underpinning of the vastly important economic engine of tourism. The entire permanent population of Wallowa County is just under 7,000 but as many as 700,000 tourists visit the region each year. The moraines also have special significance to the Nez Perce Tribe.  Located on the terminal moraine is Old Chief Joseph’s gravesite, part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. This is the starting place for the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) National Historic Trail. Finally, there are the non-human residents to consider. The Oregon Conservation Strategy ranks the moraine’s pine woodlands as one of 11 highest priority wildlife habitats in the state.

When faced with the breathtaking vistas surrounding Wallowa Lake, most visitors and many locals assume that Wallowa Lake and the moraines are protected.  However, despite being adjacent to protected areas including Wallowa Lake State Park, the moraines themselves are almost entirely privately owned.

In 2011, one of those landowners voiced their desire to sell or develop their 1,790-acre property which encompasses almost 60% of the East Moraine. As many as 26 homes could be built on the moraine, including three on the iconic crest above the lake.

Due to concern about the future of the East Moraine, the Wallowa Lake Moraines Partnership was formed in 2011 and includes Wallowa Land Trust, Wallowa Resources, Wallowa County, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and The Trust for Public Land. Wallowa Land Trust plays a lead role in the Partnership.

From a conservation perspective, a land trust is typically a non-profit entity that works with private landowners to protect conservation values on private land. The landowner voluntarily commits to permanently limiting the uses of their land (such as agreeing not to build a housing development) for the benefit of the environment, the community and future generations.  Sometimes the landowner donates those rights. Other times the landowner sells those rights to the land trust. The land trust assumes responsibility of ensuring that the agreed upon restrictions are upheld. The landowner continues to own the land and there are often tax benefits from transferring land to a trust agreement. The landowner can even pass the land on to heirs or sell it. However, the conservation agreements stay in place even if the land changes ownership.

The Moraines Partnership is now in conversation with all nine East Moraine landowners, all of whom have expressed interest and desire to work to protect this landscape.  Owner Jacob Hasslacher has put 40 of his 100 acres into a conservation agreement. He says, “The moraine is a sacred place to me and I’m fortunate to have property on it. I wanted it to remain open and undeveloped in perpetuity. I thought it was a good thing to do for the community and wildlife.”

Remarkably, in addition to placing private land into conservation agreements most Wallowa residents also support putting another chunk of East Moraine land under governmental ownership!  The Partnership has been awarded a $3 million grant from the USDA Forest Legacy program to acquire a portion of the largest East Moraine parcel.  However, the grant requires that the land pass to a state or local governmental entity.  Wallowa County has agreed to take ownership, with management of the land falling to Wallowa Resources.  As Ackley explains, “Generally speaking, more land in government ownership is frowned upon here in Wallowa County.  But this is a unique project in that not only is it going to keep one of the state’s most spectacular landscapes undeveloped, it is going to create a community forest that generates revenue for the county, supports local jobs and protects sensitive habitat.  It’s a win-win for our community, both ecologically and economically.”

This collaborative, community-based approach to conservation is remarkable in providing a way for landowners to exercise their property rights and maintain local ownership in a way that benefits the community and protects one of the Pacific Northwest’s natural treasures.

One thought on “Building Trust in the Great Wallowas

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