Wolfe Ranch donates land for Wallowa County’s first ag conservation easement

Written by Katy Nesbitt, The Observer February 16, 2011 02:48 pm

Horses graze on Woody Wolfe’s mid-Wallowa Valley ranch between Lostine and Wallowa. Submitted Photo
Horses graze on Woody Wolfe’s mid-Wallowa Valley ranch between Lostine and Wallowa. Submitted Photo

LOSTINE — On Tuesday, the Wallowa Land Trust and the Woody Wolfe Ranch announced the first agricultural conservation easement on a working farm in Wallowa County.

The easement covers ranchlands surrounding the confluence of the Lostine and Wallowa rivers in the mid-Wallowa Valley.

Wolfe owns, rents and farms roughly 1,900 acres in the mid-valley between the towns of Lostine and Wallowa. He said the easement not only protects the river corridor, but makes good business sense.

“The easement is something I could do to bring my net cost of the property closer to the agricultural value,” Wolfe said.

Yet the riverfront property has the most value to the easement, Wolfe said, because of its scenic importance.

“The reasoning overlaps,” Wolfe said. “It’s not purely for economic reasons.”

A sixth-generation Wallowa County farmer, Wolfe had more than his bottom line in mind when he started the easement process more than six years ago. Love of the land and a long family history played into his decision.

“I could sell lots for several home sites and get a significant amount more money than from the easement, but I don’t want this valley to look like a suburb,” Wolfe said.

Julia Lakes of the Land Trust said that donating the “land has incredible economic benefit and is in line with what folks want to see on their land.”

The easement includes 36 acres of aquatic lands along 2.5 miles of the Wallowa and Lostine rivers. The 161 acres of farmland will remain as such, prohibiting the risk of future subdivisions.

“I’m attached to the scenic value of the land,” Wolfe said. “I don’t want to see a lot of new homes going up.”

Part of Wolfe’s ranch has been passed down through his family since 1897, and he intends to leave his land to his two sons. Though the easement doesn’t guarantee that the title will stay in the family forever, it does guarantee that the easement portions won’t be developed.

“I’m trying to put something back together of what my grandfather had,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said he plans to do another easement and expects that the next one won’t take as long.

“The first one took so long because it’s not a common practice,” Wolfe said. “It’s tough to find an appraiser who has the ability to write an appraisal to meet state and federal requirements. Now we more or less know what we’re doing.”

At 197 acres, Wallowa Land Trust President James Montieth said the Lostine-Wallowa Confluence Conservation Easement comprises a little less than half of the full parcel of 454 acres of farm ground eventually to be under easement. 

“It’s the first in a two-step process to secure funding for the entire conservation easement by the Wallowa Land Trust, which is now in the process of raising additional monies to complete the easement over the remaining 257 acres of this parcel,” Montieth said.

Many local families and individuals contributed to this effort, enabling the trust to pay for the easement, Montieth said. Along with a series of small grants, these donations provided initial support to complete the necessary due diligence requirements, including natural resource inventories, surveys and appraisals.

Acquisition funds were provided in part by generous grants from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to protect important fish and wildlife habitat identified in Oregon’s Wildlife Action Plan, and by PacifiCorp/PGE.

Wolfe’s land is not only valuable for farming and ranching, but the river corridor has historical significance. A Nez Perce summer fishing village was situated at the confluence of the two rivers, and Old Chief Joseph was originally buried on a bluff close by. Today it is a private lands unit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park, technically designated the Lostine Campsite.     

Montieth said conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements between landowners and land trusts, created to protect natural and traditional values of the property in perpetuity. This is the fourth such easement in the county and the first on a working farm or ranch.

This is also the Wallowa Land Trust’s first purchased conservation easement.

“The easement will help stabilize the agricultural land base in the middle valley as well as secure intact reaches of the Wallowa and Lostine rivers,” Montieth said.

 “It underscores our commitment to working farms and ranches throughout the Wallowa Country, and demonstrates how voluntary private lands conservation can serve both agriculture and fish and wildlife resources. This easement guarantees the property will remain in agricultural production, and also will improve water quality by protecting riparian areas and critical wetlands in this important river system.”

The Wallowa Land Trust was founded in 2004 by Wallowa County landowners and is governed entirely by local residents. Its mission is “to protect the rural nature of the Wallowa Valley and surrounding areas by working cooperatively with private landowners, governmental entities, Indian tribes and local communities.” 

The trust uses economic incentives to help conserve the valley’s natural, historic, cultural and agricultural resources, including forests, farmlands, ranchlands, grasslands, wetlands, waterways and open space for the benefit of present and future generations.

Although best known for its leadership efforts and educational endeavors on the moraines of Wallowa Lake, the trust also works with property owners to conserve agricultural and other lands throughout the Wallowa Country.

Montieth said the trust is committed to keeping working lands working. It purchases, and/or receives in donation, both conservation easements and fee title properties from willing sellers. In some instances it works with landowners to help find motivated buyers who want to maintain traditional uses of their lands.

The Wallowa Land Trust operates three major programs: Farms & Ranchlands, its largest program area, whose purpose is to secure agricultural ground as perpetual working lands, helping keep farms and ranches intact and maintaining the county’s agricultural land base; Indian Sacred Lands; and Habitat & Open Ground. Its office is on South River Street, across from the county courthouse.