By Paul Fattig
When Jim Scheffel looks out at the oak woodland surrounding the 33-acre Woolfolk Reservoir, he tries not to think about it dotted with houses some day.
“It’s hard to imagine how this would look subdivided with houses on it,” he said of the land he bought in 1976.
“We want to preserve this land to keep the environment as it is,” added his wife, Elise. “The wildlife here — elk herds, deer, bobcats, geese, ducks — is amazing. In the winter, we have 50 or 60 turkeys coming up the drive to roost. It’s such a special place for wildlife.”
The Scheffels are working with the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy to create a conservation easement on 288 acres, a legal agreement that would limit land use on the property in perpetuity.
Located a few miles from Brownsboro in the School House Creek watershed, the property was once co-owned by the late Ben Day, one of the principal founders of the conservancy when it was formed late in 1978. In the past 35 years, it has established 52 conservation easements on more than 8,600 acres in the region.
“It is an exceptional property with grand old oaks,” observed Kristi Mergenthaler, the conservancy’s land steward. “It has such a mosaic of different habitat types. In addition to the oak woodland, there are patches of chaparral and meadows mixed in.”
Elk and deer frequently forage on the land, she said.
“It hosts tons of wildlife and plant life,” she said, including species that are declining elsewhere. “You see Lewis’s woodpeckers, western meadowlarks, acorn woodpeckers, bushy-tailed gray squirrels.”
Rare plants include the Southern Oregon buttercup, which is found only in Jackson County, she added.
“Sometimes you go out there and see white pelicans in the reservoir,” she said. “This conservation easement will be a gift to the elk community, the bird community and the human community — to everything.”
The conservation easement was something Ben Day would have appreciated, said Talent resident Dave Garcia, 66, another founding member of the conservancy, who served on the original board with Day.
“I think Ben Day would be very happy to see this land preserved — he would be proud to see this happening now,” said Garcia, whose wife, Diane, is the conservancy’s director. “He was dedicated to preserving special places, especially farmland.”
Day, who died in 1998 at age 86, was a lawyer, rancher and state legislator. He was a graduate of Medford Senior High School, what is now Southern Oregon University and Willamette University Law School. From 1949 through 1955, he served in the Oregon Legislature, first in the House, then the Senate.
Intent on protecting working farms, forests and ranchlands from urban sprawl, he was one of the principal founders of the conservancy, which held its first meeting on Nov. 14, 1978.
He served as the first president for what is now one of Oregon’s largest land trusts.
“I think he would agree with the notion of protecting this land,” said Jim Scheffel, who walked the land with Day to determine its boundaries. Day was one of several people who co-owned the property when he bought it, he noted.
The land was previously owned by Ira Woolfolk, who built the dam in 1954, creating the reservoir that stretches to 33 acres when brim full, as it is now.
“One of the reasons we bought the property was because we wanted a growing season and enough space so you didn’t feel like you were looking into someone else’s yard,” Jim said.
He is a retired civil engineer; his wife a former English teacher. The Scheffels spent the lion’s share of their professional careers in Alaska.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to live here,” Elise said. “The lighting is always different. There are different spectrums of light, different shading. Whether it is a full moon or sunrise, it is so spectacular.”
They sometimes hear coyotes at night, but no wolves like they did when spending a night in their cabin near Trapper Creek, Alaska.
Reminding them of the Alaskan winters is snow-white Mount McLoughlin looming on the eastern horizon beyond the reservoir.
“We watch the snow angel come and the snow angel go every year,” he said, referring to a figure that forms on the mountain each spring.
Down at the reservoir, spring is now in the air.
“The (Canada) geese on the lake, they are pairing up now,” he said. “That is part of the ecosystem we want to protect. You learn to appreciate what’s here over the years.”
The Scheffels leased out a portion of the property for cattle grazing, in part to meet the county’s exclusive farm use requirements.
“Under the designation, you have to show some agricultural pursuit,” he said. “But a few years ago the county adopted a new ordinance that said if your property is under a conservation easement, that satisfies the EFU requirement.”
The draft conservation easement is expected to be completed this month, with the entire package final by the end of the year, Scheffel said.
“There are some prospective buyers who would appreciate a conservation easement, just as there are those who wouldn’t,” he said. “But we want to preserve it as it was. It has the same attributes as when I first saw it.”
Last year, the SOLC became an accredited land trust, one of only 201 nationwide. The accreditation demonstrates that the conservancy meets or exceeds the national standard and that its conservation efforts are permanent.
The conservancy’s goal is to conserve 20,000 acres of high-priority land by 2020.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.