Creating a Nature Preserve in Central Washington or A Conservation “Field of Dreams”
By Ferdi Businger
A little over five years ago I made a trip to central Washington to look at a large piece of property that was listed for sale. It was more an excuse to go on a road trip than any serious intention to buy a 1000- acre “rattlesnake ranch” as one friend later dubbed it. Nevertheless, the realtor Mike Jernquist insisted on driving five hours to show me the land. As we walked it, I asked him jokingly how much he had paid the hawks, ducks, and herons to put on a good show for me that day. He laughed. Needless to say, it was love at first sight and this magic place, having called me, now owned me.
To understand what a stretch it was to buy this land, one should know I had no money in the bank, but owned two properties on Sinclair Island, which included my primary residence – a beach cabin I had built. So I needed to borrow money for the down payment, and then to sell almost everything I owned to make it work.
In spite of my lifelong interest in conservation (I was on the board of the San Juan Preservation Trust for eight years) I did not initially set out to create a wildlife preserve. I had no idea what I was walking into when I bought the property. I didn’t know it was prime sage grouse habitat or even that sage grouse were a threatened species. I didn’t know that the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife had tried to buy it years earlier, and that the Nature Conservancy had also expressed an interest. All I knew was that this was an exquisite landscape, appealing first and foremost to my aesthetic sensibilities.
After I had taken the plunge, one of the first people to contact me was Michael Brown who worked with Pheasants Forever and the US Department of Agriculture. He was interested in applying for grants to do wetland restoration work on the property. About the same time I reached out to the Foster Creek Conservation District and its Director at the time, Jon Merz, and to the US Fish & Wildlife’s Wenatchee office where a friend of mine, Tim McCracken, worked. I also contacted the Chelan Douglas Land Trust. Tours of the property followed. There was enormous enthusiasm for protecting this land and I was easily convinced that this was its highest use. More difficult was figuring out how to do it. I couldn’t just donate it since most of my life savings were tied up in it.
This is where a very good friend of mine and fellow conservationist, Valerie Tarico, stepped in. (Everyone needs such a friend!) Valerie and her husband, Brian Arbogast, offered to put up a $25,000 matching grant, and she offered to partner with me on the fundraising campaign. Early on it became clear to us that public funds were going to be hard to come by in this political climate, and that a private effort was our best hope. I also felt that the land might be in better hands if it was owned by a private land trust. Needless to say, Valerie’s encouragement provided the catalyst to move things forward.
So where do things stand today? Wetland restoration work is mostly completed. A campaign is underway to raise money so that the Chelan Douglas Land Trust (CDLT) can buy 1000 acres, including Spiva Butte, a four-acre lake, three springs and riparian corridors. The plan is that CDLT will own the land in fee and the Foster Creek Conservation District will be given a conservation easement. They will then co-manage the property. I have also bought an additional 600 contiguous acres, most of which I would like to add to the preserve. That will require a second round of fundraising.
As of today, we have raised half of the total $550,000 campaign cost, which includes the discounted cost of the land. (I have agreed to sell it for $44,000 less than I paid for it.) A very generous couple has donated the entire $180,000 stewardship cost and the CDLT has kicked in its staff costs to the tune of $20,000. We have also raised an additional $75,000 to date from private donors, including a $7000 donation from Conservation Northwest.
So what does this property have to offer in the way of conservation? There are sage grouse leks on two adjacent properties. It is also used by sharp-tailed grouse. Sage thrashers are fairly common here. There is a resident great horned owl. Short-eared owls and northern harriers are often seen. A western king bird pair nests in the same aspen grove every spring. Pheasants and quail are common and mountain bluebirds are occasionally seen. Both the black-crowned night-heron and the great blue heron make use of the lake, in the company of duck species too numerous to list here. Beavers, badgers, porcupine, mule deer, jack rabbits, cottontail rabbits, and coyotes are just some of the mammals that have been seen. There is also a good population of pygmy short-horned lizards and western skinks. Snakes include wandering garter snakes, western yellow-bellied racers, great basin gopher snakes, and northern Pacific rattlesnakes. The top of Spiva Butte is a location where butterflies of several species do their “hill-topping”, a wonderful sight. And the wildflowers are epic.
Since I’m an avid photographer, I’ve created a book, Spiva Butte Nature Preserve. Spiva Butte is the name of the high point on the property, a prominent hill that was named after the original homesteading family. I’m currently working on a second volume. And when the project is completed I will make a third and final volume and credit everyone who has donated to, and in other ways supported, this effort. I feel enormously grateful for all the help, both financial and moral, that this “field of dreams” has inspired. A big thank you to the entire conservation community, as well as to my ranching and wheat farming neighbors who have been most gracious in their support.