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From the top of Bald Hill, the green fields, shining rivers and wooded ridgelines around Corvallis and Philomath unfold before the eye like a living map.

That was the place Charlie Ross used to take people when he wanted them to see what he saw: A vision of the future where urban dwellers could walk out their doors and step into natural open spaces that would surround their communities like jewels on an emerald necklace.

Today much of that vision has come to pass, in large part due to the efforts of Ross and the organization he helped create, the Greenbelt Land Trust, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this week.

“We have over 100 20-year members, and a lot of them have the same story of going out with Charlie and him making them see the vision,” said Jessica McDonald, the land trust’s development director.

“He was very frank with them about what we could lose if we didn’t act.”

Thanks to Ross’ tireless evangelizing — including hundreds of letters to newspaper editors, numerous talks to clubs and civic groups and countless friendly arm-twisting sessions on the summit of Bald Hill — much of the natural beauty he admired has been preserved.

After 25 years of work, the Greenbelt Land Trust now has nearly 2,500 acres under management, from heavily used open space parks on the urban fringe to secluded habitat restoration sites, and its portfolio of protected natural areas continues to expand throughout the mid-valley.

Walking the talk

Ross and his wife, Elsie, did more than just talk about preserving open space — they also helped pay for it. Using money they earned by investing in timberland, they set up trust funds with the Corvallis and Benton County governments for open space acquisition and helped purchase the land for Chip Ross Park and Fitton Green Natural Area.

In 1989, the Greenbelt Land Trust was incorporated as a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization, with Meg Campbell as its first board president. The following year it completed its first major acquisition: 53 acres on the west side of Bald Hill, Ross’ favorite stomping grounds. (About 13 acres was sold off to help repay a loan used to purchase the property; the rest was donated to the city of Corvallis to expand Bald Hill Natural Area.)

“The guy was golden, and his whole vision was golden. He was so far ahead of his time,” said Jerry Davis, who served as director of the Benton County Natural Areas and Parks Department from 1986 to 2006.

“I really thought the city of Corvallis and Benton County were rewarded with the work the Greenbelt did.”

Today, Chip Ross Park serves as a portal into the extensive trail system of Oregon State University’s McDonald-Dunn Research Forest on the north side of Corvallis, while Bald Hill Natural Area is the center of another trail network on the city’s western edge.

One of Ross’ early converts to the greenbelt concept, Andrew Martin, is largely responsible for extending the westside trails. The longtime owner of Bald Hill Farm granted easements allowing public access through his property and helped persuade his neighbor Jack Brandis to provide another easement linking the Benton County Fairgrounds to the Bald Hill trails.

Last year Martin sold 587 acres of his rustic farm property to the Greenbelt Land Trust and purchased additional acreage for a new path linking the Bald Hill and Fitton Green trail networks along Mulkey Ridge.

“He was a great add-on — he supported the Greenbelt Land Trust financially, and he supported his property as part of the trail system,” Davis said. “He’s a star as well.”

Thinking big

From its early focus on trails and greenspace in the Corvallis-Philomath area, the Greenbelt Land Trust has gradually broadened its mission. Other land acquisitions and conservation easements followed, sometimes to enlarge public parks, other times to protect sensitive natural habitats.

The organization’s financial base began to expand, thanks in large part to bequests from early supporters, and Greenbelt began to grow its professional staff. At the same time, the land trust was building relationships with landowners throughout the mid-valley and forming alliances with new types of funding partners, from government agencies such as the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to private foundations such as the Meyer Memorial Trust.

In 2008, Greenbelt became the first land trust in the country to earn national accreditation and announced plans to pursue conservation projects beyond its Benton County base in neighboring Linn, Polk and Marion counties.

Since then there’s been a flurry of activity, including a major move into protection of floodplain habitats along the mainstem of the Willamette River, with about 1,100 acres now under management between Monroe and Independence.

Some of the land was acquired outright, but much of it remains in private ownership, with Greenbelt obtaining conservation easements instead of title. In some cases, farming continues on parts of the property. And in all cases, the property remains on the tax rolls.

“We’ve doubled the amount of acreage in our lands portfolio over the last four years,” said Michael Pope, who took the reins of the land trust in 2010 from longtime executive director Karlene McCabe.

With growth has come the capacity to take on more complex and ambitious restoration projects, often in collaboration with private landowners, local watershed councils, the state parks department and other land trusts. That’s been especially true along the Willamette River, where Greenbelt is juggling multiple conservation objectives, from restoring old floodplain connections to re-establishing riparian forests.

“We have good projects,” Pope said. “In many cases they’re not just one-off things, they’re building on other conservation projects — we’re building a larger conservation footprint.”

Leadership role

As its activities have expanded in the mid-valley, the Greenbelt Land Trust has emerged as a major player in Oregon conservation circles.

“They are one of our closest partners in the Willamette River Initiative,” said Pam Wiley of the Meyer Memorial Trust. “They’ve proven really effective at working with landowners and constructing acquisitions.”

Greenbelt helped form the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, and Pope is now the fledgling organization’s president. In that role he serves as a mentor to younger conservation professionals, and he’s frequently called on to serve on advisory committees.

Meta Loftsgaarden, deputy director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, said she often points to Greenbelt as an example when she talks to other land trusts about how to balance competing interests. At Bald Hill Farm, for instance, the management plan blends livestock grazing, habitat restoration, educational outreach and recreational trail use.

“They’re incredibly thoughtful about how they fit in with the community,” Loftsgaarden said. “They think about managing for multiple values.”

Guiding principles

While Greenbelt marks its 25th anniversary this week, Pope is looking ahead to the land trust’s next 25 years.

In the near term, much of the focus will be on consolidating the growth of the last few years, completing management plans and buckling down to the hard work of on-the-ground restoration programs.

“Next week, if the weather holds, we’ll be planting 60,000 trees on a couple of those sites,” Pope said. “(But) you don’t just go out and do a few things and then you’re done — it’s an ongoing responsibility.”

Looking farther into the future, Pope envisions continuing to build regional partnerships as Greenbelt expands its environmental mission to preserve other sensitive habitats across the mid-valley, including oak savannas and upland prairies in what he calls “a rivers to ridges approach to conservation.”

At the same time, Pope says, it’s important to hold true to the organization’s original aim: not just conservation for conservation’s sake, but readily accessible open spaces where city people can feel the healing hand of nature.

The Rosses are gone now — Charlie died in 2006, Elsie in 2013 — but Pope said their vision still guides the Greenbelt Land Trust.

“As the Willamette Valley continues to grow in population, we’re going to want to protect the conservation legacy that we have here — but we also need to make sure people have access to those lands,” he said.

“We’re creating that legacy for future generations, just like the early founders created a legacy at Bald Hill and Fitton Green and some of those other natural areas.”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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