Home in the great unknown
Conservation easement allows family to connect with nature

May 2, 2017

Helen Stroebel has tirelessly worked for months on a hillside to revive beautiful, native wildflowers that once thrived in Moscow.

The idea bloomed in her head in 2012 as she stared at a four-acre plot of land, one that helps compose the 80 acres of property near Moscow that she co-owns with her mother and brother. Non-native grasses and weeds previously made the plot unwelcoming. She and hired help spent the first year removing the invasive plants. Yard maintenance workers planted native grasses and wildflowers in their place. For now, red flags mark where the wildflowers will bloom in three years. More flowers will be planted this spring.

Currently, Stroebel is offered no help to continue weeding the four acres, which is roughly the size of four football fields.

She sits out on the hill throughout the spring and summer weeding plants that have grown in the native flora’s space for so long. Before heading out each day, she tells her 83-year-old mother, “I’m going out to play.” 

Her enthusiasm for nature began early with the help of her parents, Albert and Marjory Stage. Interaction with wildlife kept Stroebel’s family constantly outdoors. They’ve remained on the 80 acres of land since 1962.

Stroebel’s preservation of the landscape is all thanks to conservation easements, which are legal agreements made with a land trust on how the land will be conserved. Each agreement is flexible to what the landowner hopes to see and each easement protects land differently. But once these agreements are in place to protect a homeowner’s land, it remains in perpetuity — there is no going back or changing it, ever.

The Palouse Land Trust has helped landowners in the Palouse region, like Stroebel, purchase conservation easements that will last longer than any lifetime. Landowners who partner with any other land trust across the nation are assisted in creating a conservation plan unique to their aspirations for the land. No matter who the next owner of the land is, the rules for the conservation easement will always be in place, said Amy Trujillo, executive director of the Palouse Land Trust.

For 22 years, the nonprofit organization has assisted landowners in creating easements and performing yearly check-ups on each property to make sure the legal agreement continues to be upheld.

There are 18 landowners in the Palouse with easements. About 4,000 acres of land have been conserved under this system.

Before Stroebel’s parents bought the 80 acres of land she co-owns today, they only were renting a portion of the land for their horses in a small pasture. When the landowners wanted to sell the land, the Stages’ eagerly purchased it. 80 acres of land became theirs in 1962.

Forty years passed before Albert and Marjory chose to create a conservation easement. A UI faculty member gave Albert the idea. Marjory remembers it being a fast process. Stroebel, however, said it took many steps over five years. In 2008, the easement was completely finalized. All along the way the Palouse Land Trust offered guidance.

Easements vary depending on the type of land. The most popular easements are those that protect important natural areas, wildlife habitats, water quality and working farms.

Stroebel’s 80 acres is divided up differently, protecting distinctive aspects of nature. In the forest area, the forest service is permitted to log trees to keep the forest healthy. Howard Creek runs along part of the property and is protected. An old cedar grove has historical value, so no trees can be logged there.

The land embraces both massive pine trees and prairie. Rocks and shrubs. A garden. An old orchard. A running trail. A two-story house and a gazebo.

Perhaps the best view of the land is from the gazebo, located about 50 yards beyond the house. A dirt path leads to the tiny pentagon-shaped building. The only thing inside is a bed. The gazebo is off-white from sun exposure. Windows surround the bed, except for on the wall where the head of the bed rests.

Through the windows is where Marjory and Albert spent every night viewing the Palouse’s horizon until they were 70.

The idea of conserving land is appealing to many, but most do not decide to partake in easements with a belief that it will be easy.

Physical labor is demanding when there are 80 acres of land to maintain. Stroebel struggled to use a snow blower last winter with the heavy amount of snow. Pulling weeds is strenuous, and she maintains a garden along with her new four-acre native wildflower project.

But she could not imagine giving up the home just because of the work it requires.

Stroebel’s parents want the easement to stay in the family. Currently, Marjory owns 50 percent of the property and Stroebel and her brother split the other half. Stroebel’s children have the choice to take on the home and the easement, too. If ever the family decided they do not want to live on the land, they would sell it to someone. The next owner would continue to follow the easement guidelines, and the next owner after that.

Trujullo said the benefits of conservation easements are plentiful for the landowner, but they do impact the development of an area. Once easements are in place, they reduce the value of the land because no more homes can be built on those areas of land. The rural-urban interface grows increasingly popular, but conservation easements take away the opportunity for other people to join. Although developing an area is more profitable than conserving it, these owners don’t choose to sign up for an easement for the money. In fact, enacting easements typically cost landowners large sums of money, Trujillo said. Homeowners are expected to pay the different surveys taken of the land as well as pay to fix any environmental hazards or issues a survey finds.

Some landowners do receive grants from organizations like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but only if their land benefits the organization’s mission. Judy LaLonde, a landowner and easement holder near Moscow, received a grant from the Idaho Department of Lands because they were interested in Big Meadow Creek, which runs through her property. The creek has the potential to become a tributary for steelhead trout to pass through. This helped pay for some of the cost of an easement, but LaLonde said it still costs some several thousand dollars. For Stroebel and her family, the cost of conservation was worth it.

Now, eight years after their easement was finalized, Marjory sits in the two-story house nestled among their 80-acres of land. She is dressed like she’s ready to leave the house, but she sits on a vintage yellow couch, reading an online newspaper. A walker rests directly in front of her and her stark white shoes sit visible between the bars. She faces the big sliding door so she can look out at the property. When she recalls stories with the wildlife she looks outside and smiles, reminiscing.

Marjory is what Stroebel calls an “avid naturist.” Stroebel remembers her mother taking molds of all the animal prints she found on the property.

Once, a bear stood eye-to-eye with her at the kitchen window. He pushed at the window, and she stared wide-eyed back. But she was never afraid. She, as well as the rest of the family, acknowledge they are living in the middle of wildlife and have altered their lifestyle to become accommodating to it.

Without the easement, their encounters with wildlife may be fewer. Their property is the only one in the immediate area to have a conservation easement. Though Marjory wishes her neighbors would get easements to further benefit the animals and plants, she has seen her family enjoy nature to the fullest.

When Albert died, his ashes were spread among the forest. His years in forestry management kept him wanting to preserve the forests, and that area of the property quickly became his favorite.

“They are the best looking trees on the property,” Marjory said.

Just beyond that patch of forest rests a garden. Marjory and her sister spent hours gardening during her visits to Moscow from Florida. When Marjory’s sister died, she asked for her ashes to be spread overlooking the garden.

“Put me with her,” Marjory said to her daughter, and they smiled.

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