Uncertain future for Sandy River Gorge preserve
Even on a recent cloudy day, the swath of lush, majestic rainforest called the Sandy River Gorge Preserve glows a lime green beneath the leafy canopy above.
The preserve that lies six miles east of Gresham, however, is about to change owners, causing some to fear for its future. It was founded with a 156-acre donation to The Nature Conservancy by a prominent Portland-area family, the Diacks, and became the heart of more than 400 acres placed off-limits to development.
The conservancy, however, is now divvying up the preserve, transferring most of it to the Metro regional government while selling the previously donated land back to the Diack heirs.
The transaction raises questions for one family member, a former Metro official and Tom McAllister, the longtime outdoor writer and historian who wrote for the Oregon Journal and The Oregonian for 40 years. He also was a longtime hike leader for The Nature Conservancy, even serving on its state board of trustees.
Considering the lack of funds public agencies typically have to maintain natural areas, "I certainly want to see a plan and know why it's so important for Metro to acquire that," McAllister said. "That's quite an addition and it's very important to know what their plan is for managing the area and access, and how they're going to use it."
The Metro Council will discuss the acquisition of the land during its Thursday, May 18, meeting based on a staff report that makes no reference to the preserve's rich history or to how the properties might be developed for public access in the future.
Dan Moeller, Metro's conservation director, says there is no immediate plan to build trails or otherwise increase public access to the preserve, but says there is no restriction barring it either.
"At this time we don't have any plans to expand public acess to this area," he said. "But those decisions are made by the Metro Council. ... We don't have any immediate plans for sure to do any kind of expanded access to this area."
The main protection of what's known as the Diack tract will come from the family heirs, Doug and Frey Stearns, who are in negotiations to purchase back the land the Diacks gave the conservancy in 1970. The Stearns did not respond to a request for comment on the deal, but the purchase amounts to a "defensive maneuver" to preserve the family's land and cabin near the river's bank, said Sam Diack, Jr. who lives nearby and functions as sort of an unpaid preserve manager.
Katharine Diack, who still is part owner of the cabin set within the preserve, said The Nature Conservancy didn't give the family much of a choice. She calls the push to have the family buy the land back a "slap in the face" to her parents' vision for the property, and she's worried about whether the wild nature of the land will be preserved.
Cathy McDonald of The Nature Conservancy said the group does not discuss pending transactions with private landowners, but that it has full faith that transferring the remainder of the preserve to Metro will lead to its preservation.
"They do a great job of managing their natural areas," she said of Metro. "We have a lot of confidence in that program, and so we don't see the need to put any conditions on this transfer."
Still others question why The Nature Conservancy is shifting its costs onto the public.
Charlie Cieko, former head of the Metro's regional parks program, said, "I think it's unfortunate that the taxpayers of the region might be saddled with the cost of providing stewardship to these properties in perpetuity, when they've been held for so many decades by a wealthy conservation organization."
Metro now holds 17,000 acres following two open spaces' bond measures and a levy. Cieko was there for the first one, in 1995.
"When the program was put together, the intent was to protect lands that were threatened, and obviously I don't see Nature Conservancy lands as being threatened in any way."
The Sandy River Gorge is six-mile stretch south of Oxbow Park, long prized by kayakers, that has a unique ecology more typical of uplands, such as the slopes of Mount Hood from which the river originates.
"There are black bear, there are cougar," said McAllister, who surveyed some of the lots in the gorge with another noted Oregon naturalist, Marcy Houle. "It's got a perfect mix of western Oregon mammals and forest birds."
The gorge's pristine state wasn't always a sure thing. A half-century ago, Multnomah County was considering zoning the Sandy River gorge for residential homes. But the Diack family, led by two physician brothers, Arch and Sam Sr., fought the move, donating 156 acres to The Nature Conservancy on the condition that the conservancy obtain other acres to add to the preserve.
"It is proposed to take steps which will preserve this area in naturally wild condition dedicated to the preservation of animal and plant life subject to rational recreational use by members of the public," wrote the Diacks in their original proposal to the conservancy, on Jan. 12, 1967. "The number of people using the wilderness area at any one time shall be limited so as to preserve the area from spoilage by human preponderance."
If the conservancy does transfer the property to another owner, it "will" be obligated to ensure the conditions such as limited access are enforced, the Diacks wrote in the proposal.
The preserve grew to cover more than 400 acres and was assisted by other efforts by Sam, Frances, Arch and Phyllis Diack. They helped win special state and federal protections for the river while spearheading a legal challenge all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court to fend off a city of Portland water grab, changing the state's water laws in the process.
For decades the preserve continued. Reed College students conducted research at the site under a program funded by the Diacks. High school students visited the site on field trips.
But last year the conservancy approached the Diacks with news they hoped to no longer hold the land, instead planning to transfer the preserve to Metro.
It's not the first time the conservancy has made such a move, said Cathy McDonald. She noted the group still intends to deploy its volunteers to help fight invasive species and otherwise maintain the property.
Though the group has no shortage of resources — it had nearly $6 billion in assets last year, according to its financial report — the group tries to make sure its funds are spent to preserve biodiversity.
"We periodically look at our preserve portfolio and look at places where it might make sense for us to transfer our properties to other capable managers," McDonald said.