o w e n a W
i l d s
An Experiment in Community with Nature
It was 1998 and my heart sank when I saw the sign: Rowena Hills Homesites, offered
by ACE Development. They had it all mapped out-- 21
homesites along the east and wildest edge of the property,
tennis courts, riding stables and horse pasture. I had been
looking for potential new places to live in the sunnier, eastern
part of the Gorge and had fallen in love with the Rowena Plateau. The 180 acres of land encompassed by this development included ancient oaks and tall Ponderosas, open savannas and excellent raparian habitat along Rowena Creek. Elk
frequented the property on a regular basis and mountain lion
thrived in the region as the property bordered 5000 acres of
wild land protected by the USFS, Nature Conservancy, State
Park and the Kortge Ranch.
I tried my best to forget about this special place I had stumbled upon and did until my realtor friend told me that ACE Development had
sold the land to another developer who planned to implement the project. After holding it for a year he changed his mind and decided to sell. I tried
to interest Trust for Public Land and the Forest Service
in picking up this unique parcel, but since it was only on
the edge and not in the National Scenic Area, they
were not interested. Nor was the Nature Conservancy, even though their Tom McCall Preserve was just a short walk away. After
much bonding with the land I began to consider taking the
biggest financial risk of my life and become something I
never dreamed I would become: a developer. At first it hurt to even use the word in a personal context. My father had been a college ecology professor and I had been steeped in environmentalism all my life. Developers were the enemy! Perhpas the hardened judgements I carried needed to be rethought! Perhaps there was a way to protect this land by putting on another hat for awhile. Why not divide the land into 8 parcels (instead of the 21 current zoning allowed), put maximum environmental covenants on the property, attract a community of nature loving folks and try, as much as possible, to live in concert with nature?
experiement to be sure, but why not give it a try? It was either that or remain a purist and watch as a more typical developer implemented the ubiqutous 5 and 10 acre, hobby ranch, cookie-cutter-lot, do-anything-you-want-to-kind-of-thing we are all familar with in rural areas. Spurred on by the fact that two traditional developers in Portland were salivating over the prospect of me not following through, I held my breath, signed the papers, and began the dance through enumberable hoops of county red tape. Wasco County was a joy to work with as they loved the scaled down project from the start. It was something totally new for no one in the county had ever willingly down-zoned their property before. I called the project, "Rowena Wilds"....a name chosen to guide a vision of protecting, as
much of this land as possible and living in a way that would
preserve it's wild quality to the best of a community's ability.
My daughter and I celebrated by throwing mudpies at the sign
pictured above before taking it down.
"Build It and They Will Come"
Six years have passed and
I can happily report that the project has been a great success.
I could not have imagined a more committed group of nature
lovers than those that came to purchase parcels in Rowena
Wilds. Some are professional ecologists; others are planners, community development experts, entrepreneurs and, thankfully, one fireman! I bought four parcels neigboring Rowena Wilds, placed the CC&R's on them and added this land to the project. Including the lot I kept for myself, there are 10 parcels of the now 200 acre Rowena Wilds. I donated the development rights to two parcels via a conservation easement to the Columbia Land Trust. This become their first Oregon holding. Other Rowena Wilds conservation easements have since been donated to CLT including the fee simple donation of 31 acres of land along Rowena Creek that will be managed in tandem by Columbia Land Trust and the Rowena Wilds Council. The University of Orgeon jumped into the excitement of Rowena Wilds. In the fall of '99 their advanced landscape architecuture graduate design studio did an entire semester study of the Rowena Creek watershed with an empahsis on "The Wilds". The management plan that resulted from this work focused on trail siting, wildlife corridors, native plant restoration, community
garden, gravel pit restoration and issues related to living
in communion with nature.
Wilds is an experiment and
it was not without a few hard-line detractors. "The land should be protected!" they said. I wholeheartedly agreed with them for obviously the land would be better off in a completely natural state...what land wouldn't? Yet, as we all are aware, it is just not possible to achieve outright protection for all the still wild and beautiful places around us. When
there is no scenario forthcoming for total protection (as
was the case here) an environmentally sensitive development
may be the next best thing. Certainly the plants would
agree....the land had been grazed for a century and now
with the fences gone and the last of the cow pies absorbed
by the earth, native grasses and wildflowers are flourishing.
turkey and deer wander unafraid. It is my dream that
in years hence, elk will be a common site on the land and mountain lion tracks will often suprise us and set our spine a tingle. Knapweed has just about been eliminated at Rowena Wilds and our conservation committee has set it's sites on wildlife rehabilitation, watering holes, native plant restoration projects, etc. We are on watch for neighboring parcels that come up for sale so that we can bring this new land into the fold. Everyone
in our community is committed to Rowena Wilds becoming a
rural-environmental development model.
of many "Rust-in-peace" wire
ball shrines built from the many fences that
once criss-crossed Rowena Wilds land.
"The Queen" --Rowena
Wild's largest oak,
and Medicine Wheel under snow.
happens Spirit descends!"