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7,165 acres

Jason Paulsen, executive director of the Methow Conservancy, at the organization's 237-acre Owl Peak property up the Rendezvous, which is on the market for $950,000. Photo by Solveig Torvik 

The Methow Conservancy has preserved 7,165 acres of the valley’s landscape in 88 conservation easements since the organization’s founding in 1996. That includes 1,100 acres in the Twisp -Winthrop corridor, where 15 ranchers and farmers have volunteered to preserve most of the existing farmland.

To date, the Conservancy has brought $9.1 million into the valley for payment to private landowners who have agreed to forego development of their properties and instead create conservation easements on their lands.

How did a community once so split by a yawing, acrimonious urban-rural divide during the decades-long fight over the proposed Early Winters downhill ski development come to agree on preserving so much agricultural land and wildlife habitat? What was the secret of getting past the suspicion and hostility with which old-timers and newcomers so often regarded one another in those days?

One key to success has been education efforts that foster respect for differing land use viewpoints and values, according to Jason Paulsen, who guided major open space acquisition while employed as city administrator for the town of Black Diamond, Wash. Raised in Shelton and a graduate of Evergreen State College, the 40-year-old Paulsen’s been executive director of the Methow Conservancy since 2006.

His great-grandfather came through the Methow hoping to make his fortune prospecting, and Paulsen says, “I grew up hearing about this wonderful place over the hill where there was great fishing and the sun always shines.” He and his wife, Valerie Potts, planned to make it their home and bought property in Mazama even before he was hired by the Conservancy.

“We’re still a long way from everyone humming the same tune and singing Kumbaya,” Paulsen cautions. Yet since its inception the Conservancy has had remarkable success in persuading both agriculturalists and urbanites to protect their properties from development.

Paulsen is quick to point out that this success rests on the shoulders of those who came before: his predecessor Katharine Bill, and before that, the Methow Valley Land Trust and the Methow Valley Environmental Education Center, which merged to become the Conservancy. They set the stage for building trust and reducing conflict in this diverse community, Paulsen says. The Conservancy’s First Tuesday programs and its winter Conservation Course series are ongoing legacies of that early emphasis on land use education.

The first conservation easement in the valley was entered into by Deb and Arnie Prentice in 1997, with the help of John Hayes’ Methow Institute, at their property near Wolf Ridge. Then a number of conservation agreements were put in place in the upper Rendezvous at the urging of Methow Conservancy board member John Adams. And when federal funding became available for salmon habitat restoration under the Endangered Species Act, the Conservancy set to work obtaining grants to secure riparian easements along the Methow and Twisp rivers, Paulsen explains.

Craig Boesel, a descendant of early valley homesteaders, raises cattle on the East County Road south of Winthrop. In 1999 he became the first agriculturalist to enter into a land preservation agreement with the Conservancy. He had been thinking about preserving his land even before the Conservancy came into existence, he says. He was troubled by the prospect of the valley’s most productive farmland being carved into five-acre parcels.

Boesel admits he was surprised by the criticism he received from other ranchers. By agreeing to fence his land to keep his cattle out of the river, they told him, “You can be setting a precedent. If you do it, they’ll expect us to do it.”

Now, though, he doesn’t hear much of that kind of talk. Rather, he says, he’s getting questions from other ranchers and farmers about how the agreement is working and whether he’d do it again. The answer is yes, he says; it’s turned out as he expected.

Boesel recently became a member of the Conservancy’s unpaid board of directors. Paulsen says the organization tries to seat environmentalists and local agriculturalists - a mix of old-timers and newcomers - on the board so each can broaden the others’ perspective on what should be taken into account regarding potentially contentious land use issues. The diverse composition of the board is one secret of the Conservancy’s success in defusing conflict. The aim is to find common values, which is essential for successful protection of important wildlife habitat and farmland from inappropriate development, according to Paulsen.

The Conservancy acts as a funnel for federal, state, public utility district and private funds that are used to buy development rights from landowners. They are paid fair market value after a complex appraisal by a specially-trained appraiser who determines the development cost of the property before assigning a market value to it.

The organization views itself as the advocate for willing land owners. It obtains grants and donations on their behalf to purchase development rights on lands that merit priority attention as wildlife habit or for agricultural use, Paulsen explains.

Roughly half of the land put into easements is donated, according to Paulsen. But, he adds, “We’re not going out and asking people to donate. We never send the letter in the mail. We always try to work with a personal relationship.”

The Conservancy becomes a legal partner with the landowner – forever. Paulsen stresses that the Conservancy therefore is at pains to insure that the landowner - who can back out until the last moment before the contract is signed - is completely happy with the arrangement. Since it’s legally obligated to enforce the land use stipulations in the agreement, the last thing the Conservancy wants is to be locked into a contentious partnership in perpetuity, he says. “Every time we complete an easement, we assume a new liability,” he adds.

In its role as the legally responsible land steward, the Conservancy annually visits the property, preferably with the landowner present. The organization relies on a dozen to 40 or so “photo points,” which document changes to the property as seen from the same location, such as weed infestations that need attention. If necessary, the Conservancy will try to find financial or other assistance to correct the situation if it’s serious enough to merit such intervention. So far there have been no violations of any conservation agreement that required legal action, Paulsen says, though there have been instances of small structures being built in prohibited areas.

The Conservancy last year met its “Imagine the Methow” goal of raising $20 million. That included private donations that may be paid over a five-year period, and the value of unreimbursed land donations as well as public funding, says Paulsen. The cash donations will be used to help leverage further funding from programs that require matching funds, he adds.

A staff of five paid full-time and five part-time people work out of the Conservancy’s small building on the edge of the Methow River at the south end of downtown Winthrop. The organization’s total operating budget is $621,000 this year. Support from individuals, foundations and business partners comprises 75 percent of the budget, while 16 percent comes from reimbursements for staff time from public grant sources. (Some funders, such as the Federal Farm and Ranch Program, don’t reimburse anything, Paulsen says, while others, such as the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, reimburse the Conservancy for 100 percent of its expenses in brokering and finalizing the agreements.) Three percent comes from program income such as workshops and publications, and 6 percent from annual distributions from the Conservancy’s stewardship endowment fund.

Some land is donated to the Conservancy itself through planned estate giving. Paulsen had only been on the job about 10 days when a letter came in the mail informing him that the Conservancy had been bequeathed 237 acres in the Rendezvous at the Owl Peak property, which has spectacular views of the valley, Mt. Gardner and the Lake Chelan - Sawtooth Wilderness. It was a gift from the estate of Seattle resident Ann Lennartz, who had restored the land’s native vegetation.

The Conservancy recently put that property on the market for $950,000. There’s one home on the property but there could have been 11 without the Conservancy’s development prohibitions. Paulsen says that when the property sells, he expects the board to add the proceeds to the existing $600,000 in the stewardship endowment fund, which is invested through the Community Foundation of North Central Washington in Wenatchee. The fund is dedicated to paying for the organization’s eternal stewardship and monitoring obligations of the land it has helped preserve.
As with all land trust organizations, says Sarah Brooks, the Conservancy’s associate director, eventually the time will come when the organization’s focus will shift from land acquisition to land stewardship.

How much more of the valley’s land should be placed in conservation easements before that change takes place?

Brooks answers by noting that of the one million acres that comprise the Methow Valley watershed, 90 percent is in federal or state ownership. That leaves 100,000 acres of private land, of which the Methow Conservancy now has preserved 7,165 acres. Ultimately, she says, it’s up to communities to decide how much of their privately-held land base should be preserved from development.