Public access to views above Wallowa Lake are one step closer to reality

Beautiful views above Wallowa Lake will soon be accessible to the public, after a yearlong fundraising effort has come to a close.

The Wallowa Lake Moraines Partnership announced Tuesday that it has officially purchased nearly 1,800 acres of land on the eastern rim above the iconic northeast Oregon lake, with plans to manage the land for public recreation in the near future.

“We couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome that serves the public’s need for permanent protection and access to this spectacular natural landscape,” John Hillock, a Wallowa County commissioner, said in a news release.

The land overlooking the east side of the lake has been in private hands for decades, but in 2011 owners of a sizable plot announced their intentions to sell, with plans to build a conference center and single-family homes.

That caused an uproar among some in Wallowa County who feared the development would sully both the view and the culture of the community. Controversy led to the formation of the Wallowa Lake Moraines Partnership – comprised of county officials, Wallowa Land Trust, Wallowa Resources and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The partnership aimed to to buy the land for public use instead.

The project received endorsements from local officials, as well as U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.

In 2019, the landowners agreed to sell the property for $6 million, which the partnership successfully raised with a combination of grants, high-dollar contributions and more than $1.1 million in individual donations.

More than half of the money – $3.5 million – came from a grant that the Oregon Department of Forestry received from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, officials said. Another $1 million came from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, while the Nez Perce Tribe contributed $300,000. The tribe will also help develop a management plan for the land.

The partnership plans to have a recreation plan ready for public input in spring 2020, when the group will also hold a ribbon cutting event on the property.

The long strip of property is on what’s known as the East Moraine above the lake. Moraines on either side of Wallowa Lake were formed as an ancient glacier moved down from the Wallowa Mountains, pushing up the earth all around it. When the glacier eventually melted, it became Wallowa Lake.

The moraines are considered “textbook perfect” examples of the geologic phenomenon and are a beautiful destination, blooming with wildflowers in spring, according to Kathleen Ackley, executive director of the Wallowa Land Trust.

“It’s the iconic visual image of Wallowa County; it’s important to the residents; it’s sacred to the Nez Perce people,” Ackley said at the outset of the project.

As long as it’s been privately owned, the ridge above the lake has been officially off-limits to hikers. However, landowners have largely turned a blind eye to trespassers, who have been using an old logging road to gain access.

Public trails that give people access to the moraines promise to be yet another addition to an area that’s already replete with natural wonders: the Wallowa Mountains, Hells Canyon, Zumwalt Prairie and Wallowa Lake itself, home to a bustling state park site.

“The East Moraine is central to our community’s sense of place," Nils Christoffersen, executive director of Wallowa Resources, said in the news release. "This milestone helps us sustain our connection to the land, which is central to the custom and culture of everyone who calls this place home. It’s an incredible achievement.”

--Jamie Hale | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | @HaleJamesB

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