Protecting land, wildlife an acre at a time

Neal Maine, a veteran of conservation efforts on the Oregon Coast
Neal Maine, a veteran of conservation efforts on the Oregon Coast
Katie Voelke of the North Coast Land Conservancy
Katie Voelke of the North Coast Land Conservancy

There’s something magical about the huge swaths of land stretching for miles, mountain and sea. That’s what the North Coast is all about: a stunning and unique visual scenery.

This summer, a 360-acre parcel on Tillamook Head was transferred from timber property to conservation corridor. The North Coast Land Conservancy and GreenWood Resources closed on the Boneyard Ridge property for $1.3 million. The purchase creates 3,500 connected acres from the summit of Tillamook Head to the Necanicum River Valley.

Boneyard Ridge ­— named because of elk bones found on the property — serves as a link between Ecola State Park, stretches along the Tillamook Head shoreline and land conservancy’s Circle Creek Habitat Reserve in the Necanicum River floodplain west of U.S. Highway 101 at the south end of Seaside.

Katie Voelke, the conservancy’s executive director, calls the Boneyard Ridge acquisition “the last piece of the puzzle,” connecting Ecola State Park to Circle Creek and the corridor of protected lands along the Neawanna and the Necanicum.

Such a transaction might have been unthinkable half a century ago, when timber companies and environmental groups were sworn enemies in city offices, courtrooms and in the field.

The public estate

North Coast Land Conservancy founder Neal Maine described the frustration environmentalists felt in the early 1980s, when conservation came as a result of a gavel from the courts, with two hostile sides pitted against each other — maybe that’s where we get the word loggerheads.

Private landowners, loggers and ranchers argued that efforts to protect wildlife that result in restrictions on land usage constitute a “taking” of private property requiring compensation.

Environmentalists posited that wildlife, water and air are held in trust by the government for the public benefit.

Oregon passed the Forest Practices Act in 1971 to ensure the continued growing and harvesting of trees while protecting soil, air, water and wildlife habitat.

The federal Endangered Species Act in 1973 — signed by President Richard Nixon — and the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 were enacted to oppose wanton private use of natural resources that destroy the “public estate.”

The laws soon showed effects on land-use decisions in Oregon and locally.

In 1986, property then known as “Gearhart Ranch” ­— later developed into the Highlands — was delayed by environmentalists by the silverspot butterfly, a threatened species at home on the Clatsop Plains.

The Northwest Forest Plan, created in 1994, established a system of reserves across the range of the spotted owl — symbol of the 1980s federal timber wars — to provide long-term nesting habitat.

Sixteen beaches in Oregon, including two in Clatsop County, were protected as management areas for the endangered snowy plover.

A change in approach

With encouragement from heightened public awareness and new federal and state rules, the Seattle-based Trust for Public Lands encouraged the development of local land trusts in the Pacific Northwest.

The North Coast Land Conservancy emerged from this call.

“In 1985 a group of people from Cannon Beach, Astoria, and points between — all veterans of the environmental battles of the 1970s and early ’80s — assembled to consider a new way to approach conservation on the Oregon Coast,” the conservancy states on its website.

In its first year, the conservancy started with a modest 3-acre marsh to mitigate the impacts of a new Little League field in Seaside.

By 1987, Cavenham Forest Industries — which had purchased Crown Zellerbach — was conferring with the Cannon Beach Planning Commission to manage ridgeline development as part of urban growth planning.

Between 1999 and 2003, Washington’s Nature Conservancy acquired most of the 8,000 acres that now make up the Ellsworth Creek Preserve in nearby Willapa. Parcels were added as the Nature Conservancy worked primarily with the Campbell Group and John Hancock, each a major lumber consortium.

In 1991, the North Coast Land Conservancy preserved 140 acres on Saddle Mountain, protecting the Copes salamander and marbled murrelet, both endangered species threatened by logging, without a court order.

In 2003, the conservancy acquired Circle Creek, a strategically located 364-acre parcel in Seaside, with Sitka spruce, an historic flood plain, wetlands and waterways.

The purchase delivered “a vision that dealt with connectivity, that dealt with the community and the pulse of the region,” Maine said.

Beyond Boneyard Ridge

It’s fair to say that 30 years ago a school district superintendent would not have been writing a logging company to thank them for a gift of 80 acres for a new campus to move schools out of the tsunami danger zone.

“We applaud your community spirit and corporate philanthropy,” Superintendent-emeritus Doug Dougherty wrote to Weyerhaeuser in August.

The land conservancy’s Maine and subsequent leadership rely on cooperation, mutual benefit and community engagement to achieve their goals.

Purchasing land is a “much better way to go” than litigating for it, Maine said.

Voelke said she hopes to learn from the Boneyard Ridge purchase as a model for future conservation.

“Right now we see opportunities to do meaningful forest conservation,” Voelke said.

The conservancy is seeking to fill the “puzzle pieces” between Tillamook Head and Neahkahnie Mountain.

“We are specifically looking at the areas around the state parks,” Voelke said. “Areas we can make a huge contiguous corridor. That’s the kind of thing we see as a very good role for us.”

It used to be the conservancy battled timber companies in courtrooms; now they sign partnerships in those same buildings.

“I think it’s a little bit like the tortoise and the hare,” Maine said at the conservancy’s 30th anniversary picnic. “Let opportunities come to you, let others do some dreaming — and help them be successful.”

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