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Amy’s Trail is only about a third of a mile long, but when it’s finished at the end of this month, it will open the door to a hidden network of walking paths in the Coast Range foothills and extend the west Corvallis trail system by several miles.

The new trail, which is scheduled to open to the public on Dec. 1, will connect Benton County’s Fitton Green Natural Area to a wooded parcel owned by the Crestmont Land Trust, a private nonprofit whose mission ranges from conservation and habitat restoration to environmental education and outdoor recreation.

Crestmont Land Trust is the passion project of Ed Easterling, a Southern transplant who came to the Northwest seeking a rural lifestyle with urban amenities and found what he was looking for in the green hills just west of Corvallis.

Amy Schoener was his neighbor, a woman with a passion for the natural world who died in 2016 and bequeathed some money to the local Audubon Society chapter. Her gift provided most of the funding to build the new trail that honors her memory.

The project, a collaboration involving a number of individuals and groups, illustrates how public and private interests have worked together over the years to create an interconnected trail network that will now allow Corvallis residents with itchy feet to ramble all the way from the Oregon State University campus to the Marys River near Wren.

Crestmont Land Trust

Easterling grew up in New Orleans, then moved to Texas for college, attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in business administration and psychology as well as an MBA.

After completing his education he went into the financial field, working for private equity firms and then managing an investment fund. He has published two books on investing, “Probable Outcomes” and “Unexpected Returns,” and has been a contributing author for others. He also owns Crestmont Research, which publishes investment research and provides education on financial markets.

While Easterling was building his financial career, he also developed an interest in outdoor pursuits. He bought some rural property in East Texas, using the land for both timber production and recreation. Although he got a lot of enjoyment out of that property, eventually he decided to relocate.

“I got tired of the Texas heat,” he says today, “but I liked living in the woods.”

With an eye toward a milder climate, he began shopping for timber acreage on the West Coast, eventually narrowing his search to the area between Roseburg and Seattle. In 2005 he purchased some former Weyerhaeuser ground along Cardwell Hill Drive in the hills between Corvallis and Wren, and in 2008 he moved out here from Texas.

The property sprawls across the hills on either side of Cardwell Hill Drive, a county road with an unusual history. It’s open to vehicular use in rural residential areas of west Corvallis and Wren, but the section in between — the narrow, unpaved stretch that runs through Easterling’s land — is gated off at either end.

While the public can use the middle portion of Cardwell Hill Drive as a walking path, the county maintains it only as an emergency evacuation route, which would be opened to motor vehicles in the event of a flood or other disaster that makes the main traffic routes unsafe.

Most of Easterling’s property is managed for commercial timber production or cattle ranching, but in 2012 he set aside 172 acres that would be open for public use. This is the area held by the Crestmont Land Trust.

Although some logging and grazing also happens on the land trust property, its primary purpose is different.

Easterling and the trust’s small staff have partnered with scientists on several research projects, including studies of vesper sparrow populations and the effects of grazing on Kincade’s lupine, a plant vital to the recovery of the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly.

They’ve also undertaken a number of habitat restoration and enhancement projects, removing invasive plants and replacing them with native species. In some areas they’ve logged fir trees to open up portions of the forest into oak-dominant woodland or oak savanna.

And starting in 2013, Easterling and his crew began laying out and constructing trails. Using existing gravel roads through the property as a starting point, they’ve created a 3-mile network of wide, well-graded paths that wind their way through deep woods and oak-studded meadows, sometimes emerging from the trees to reveal views of the surrounding hillsides or dipping down to the edge of the Marys River.

The way Easterling explains it, the Crestmont Land Trust works best when its nonprofit goals dovetail with its revenue-generating activities.

“The land trust’s mission is habitat conservation and enhancement, research, education and recreation, but the goal is also to be self-sustaining in the long term,” he said. “The commercial timber stands, the cattle grazing — that provides some income to maintain the trails and pay the property taxes.”

Sometimes those activities can overlap in unexpected and amusing fashion, such as when Easterling brings cattle over from his neighboring ranch to graze on the land trust property. A gate is closed to keep the cows in, but people can still access the trails — and a dozen or so “poop stations,” equipped with snow shovels, encourage users to do their part in keeping the pathways clear.

“What happens when cattle are grazing? It comes out the back end,” Easterling said. “This is just a way for people (to help). They’re having fun, but they’re helping us out, too.”

The Crestmont Land Trust trail network has been open for public use since 2014 (although it’s closed at the moment while work on Amy’s Trail is wrapping up).

So far, however, only a handful of hardy hikers have discovered this hidden gem — partly because Easterling hasn’t publicized it, and partly because it’s been hard to get to. Until now, the only way to access the trails has been by walking up the gated-off portion of Cardwell Hill Drive, either from Corvallis or Wren.

“That’s how a lot of people find it,” said Amanda Schoonover, who works for Easterling as the land trust’s habitat steward. “It’s kind of more word of mouth at this point.”

But that will change Dec. 1, when Amy’s Trail opens to the public, providing an easy access point into Crestmont via Benton County’s Fitton Green Natural Area, which borders the land trust property on the east.

Connecting the dots

Amy’s Trail had its genesis in a series of conversations between Easterling and Michael Pope, the executive director of the Greenbelt Land Trust.

Like Crestmont, Greenbelt is a nonprofit organization that holds land for conservation purposes, only on a much larger scale — the Corvallis-based land trust now has more than 3,600 acres under management up and down the Willamette Valley. Also like Crestmont, many of Greenbelt’s properties have trails open to public use — including Bald Hill Farm, which borders the Fitton Green Natural Area.

“Ed had expressed a strong interest in having a link connecting the Crestmont Land Trust trails over to Fitton Green,” Pope recalled. “We were going to offer some volunteer help to build them.”

County officials were receptive to the idea, but, as is so often the case with public-private partnerships, things weren’t that simple. Any connector trail between Crestmont and Fitton Green would require some new construction on county property, and there was no money available for such a project in the current two-year budget cycle.

“The county didn’t have the funds or the resources to consider this in this biennium,” said Laurie Starha, director of the Benton County Natural Areas & Parks Department.

That’s where Amy Schoener came in.

Schoener and her husband, Bill Pearcy, had a farm just west of Easterling’s place where they grew organic produce, raised sheep, kept bees and got involved in habitat restoration projects for the Fender’s blue butterfly.

Pearcy remembers his wife as someone who loved being outdoors and enjoyed few things more than wandering the countryside around their farm.

“She took me a lot of places, and sometimes we got lost,” he chuckled. “But we had fun.”

Schoener, who died May 1, 2016, was also a longtime member of the Corvallis Audubon Society, and she left the organization some money in her will. The group was casting about for ideas on how best to use the funds when the idea of a memorial trail came up.

The proposed connector between Fitton Green and Crestmont seemed perfect for a host of reasons, said Linda Campbell, secretary of the Corvallis Audubon Society.

“Amy was someone who was so enchanted by the natural world,” Campbell said.

“(The trail) is very short, but then it connects you to this whole other system that otherwise you’d have to go a long way to get to,” she added. “And I like the serendipity that you can walk there from Amy’s old house.”

Audubon agreed to provide $21,000 toward the cost of building the trail link and signed a memorandum of understanding with Benton County and Crestmont Land Trust outlining their roles in the project, Campbell said.

Easterling has been the ramrod on the effort, providing staff time, lining up contractors and persuading a host of area businesses to provide materials and services either for free or at a considerable discount. He estimates the total value of the project at somewhere north of $30,000.

For his part, Easterling says he’s having the time of his life.

“I’m having fun,” he said. “It’s fun to be on my computer working in the financial industry in the morning, and then in the afternoon have my boots on and be working in the woods.”

Taking the long view

Two weeks from now, when Amy’s Trail is finished, it will join Crestmont Land Trust’s 3 miles of trails with 1.8 miles of walking paths at Fitton Green, creating a host of possible hiking variations through a wide variety of terrain and habitat types.

Throw in the 2.7-mile stretch of Cardwell Hill Drive that’s closed to most vehicular traffic, and the possibilities multiply still further.

But that’s only one small part of a much larger picture.

Crestmont and Fitton Green add up to 480 acres of protected natural area, with habitat for deer, elk, cougars, bobcats, black bears, fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds of all descriptions.

Zoom out a little further, and the picture expands again: Just to the east of Fitton Green are the Greenbelt Land Trust’s Bald Hill Farm and the Bald Hill Natural Area, owned by the city of Corvallis.

Taken all together, those four properties add up to 1,351 acres of greenspace with 17 miles of public trails on Corvallis’ western fringe.

Add in the Campus Way Bike Path (which runs from 35th Street to the Benton County Fairgrounds by way of OSU College of Agricultural Sciences farm fields and the Irish Bend Covered Bridge) and the Midge Cramer Multi-Use Path (which runs from the fairgrounds to Bald Hill Natural Area), and the westside trail network totals 18.6 miles.

And if you want to take an even larger view, you can toss in a link from the fairgrounds to the still-under-construction Corvallis to the Sea Trail, a 60-mile route to the Pacific.

What’s more, the history of this patched-together urban wilderness area reads like a history of Amy’s Trail writ large.

In 1989, the Greenbelt Land Trust was founded as a vehicle for preserving open space around the city, largely at the instigation of two Corvallis couples — Charles and Elsie Ross, and Homer and Meg Campbell. Greenbelt’s first project — raising money to buy land on the west side of town and protect it from development — resulted in the addition of 41 acres to the Bald Hill Natural Area.

Starting about the same time, the Rosses purchased most of the property that would later become Fitton Green (named after Elsie’s family), later donating it to the county. (They had previously donated property in the Timberhill area to the city for Chip Ross Natural Area, named for their late son.)

Andrew Martin, the former owner of Bald Hill Farm, was a strong supporter of Greenbelt and a big believer in public walking paths. He joined the party by granting easements across his property to extend the Bald Hill Natural Area trail network.

In 2013, Martin decided to move out of the Corvallis area and sold his farm to the Greenbelt Land Trust. Later the same year, Martin purchased additional acreage and sold it to Greenbelt to permit a trail extension linking Bald Hill Natural Area across the farm to Fitton Green.

Amy Schoener’s 2016 bequest to the Audubon Society made it possible to construct yet another trail link, completing the chain of hiking paths from Corvallis to Wren.

And just to bring the story full circle, Linda Campbell — the Audubon Society official who helped broker the funding for Amy’s Trail — is the daughter of Greenbelt co-founders Meg and Homer Campbell.

In all these cases, private citizens worked with local governments to protect valuable greenspaces and expand the horizons of local trail users, sharing their love of the great outdoors.

It’s a local legacy Easterling is delighted to be a part of.

“I think most people have in their hearts an interest in philanthropy,” he said.

“This is an opportunity to contribute not only personally but financially — and have fun doing it.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald