The Oregon Department of Forestry, using federal funding, purchased a conservation easement that will permanently keep intact and forested the Heffernan Ranch, a 1,360-acre property in northeast Oregon. This is the first Forest Legacy grant to protect privately owned forestland in Oregon from development without transferring ownership. Agreement on the Heffernan property easement was reached in February 2017. An earlier Forest Legacy easement helped purchase a private pine forest in central Oregon to create the Gilchrist State Forest.

The $1,335,000 easement cost for the Heffernan Ranch was paid for as part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program. That program relies on money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Since 1990, mitigation payments from offshore oil and gas drilling have been used by LWCF to maintain working forests by acquiring or buying easements on forested land. The easement on the Heffernan Ranch requires that:

  • at least 75 percent of the property must remain forested forever
  • forest and grazing must be done in accordance with the Forest Stewardship Plan that was reviewed by Oregon Department of Forestry staff.

Tucked away near the base of the Elkhorn Mountains — which are part of the Blue Mountain range — the Heffernan Ranch is a prime example of a working landscape. The ranch is home to many types of native wildlife and their associated habitat, from mixed conifer forest to sagebrush steppe. It even boasts a rare beaver pond complex.

Chris and Donna Heffernan bought the ranch intending to operate it as a working forest and ranch alongside their two sons, Justin and Sheldon. Like many Oregon ranchers, the Heffernan family in recent years has been faced with deciding the highest and best use of their property. Large working ranches and timberlands across the western United States are often sought by developers looking to carve them into smaller parcels. The Heffernans didn’t want to see that happen to their ranch.

“The objectives that we, as a family, set were to find a way to keep our timberland and our ranch as an entire working landscape,” Chris Heffernan says. “We didn’t want to look at options to sell this property a chunk at a time. This land is unique, so we set out to conserve it, not just under our ownership, but forever.”

Many landowners around the country are faced with these same difficult choices. As more and more people look to leave the busy hustle of urban life, undeveloped land becomes highly sought after. Land use laws don’t adequately protect a large ranch from being broken into smaller tracts. Often, owners of large properties are offered amounts well above normal market value by developers. These offers leave landowners looking for ways to protect the integrity of their working lands.

One option to protect property from being converted from a working ranch to small hobby ranches or second homes is to enroll in a conservation easement program. The landowner retains ownership and continues to pay the property taxes but the easement purchases certain rights to conserve specific resources on the property. Often the rights that the landowner agrees to relinquish are those involving subdivision and development. The purchased rights are permanently restricted, regardless of whether the property is passed down to heirs or sold to an outside buyer.

“For us, the conservation easement was very appealing. We knew we wanted to protect the property from being divided. We needed to keep these habitats from being segregated.” Donna Heffernan says of their chosen option.

In 2012, the Heffernans decided to pursue a conservation easement with the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program. The Oregon Department of Forestry administers the program in Oregon.

“It’s not surprising that the first Legacy easement we hold is for family forestland owners, who won the Outstanding Tree Farmer at the State and Western Regional level. This agreement reflects Chris and Donna’s excellent management and contributions to sustainable forestry and our mission to promote stewardship of Oregon’s forests,” said State Forester Peter Daugherty. “The long-term easement preserves important ecological and habitat values, while meeting owner objectives for their working forest.”

After the money was allocated, an appraisal was made by Tyler Woods, of Woods Appraisal Services, a state-certified third-party appraiser. The Forest Legacy Program requires a U.S. Forest Service review appraiser to confirm that the appraisal meets certain requirements for federal land acquisitions. This process took nearly four years to complete.

“It was a long process for sure, but now our family feels comfortable knowing this land is protected from development, while still providing natural resource and working ranch income for future generations. The habitat and wildlife that we are so blessed to live amongst is protected forever,” Chris said of the lengthy process.