Methow conservation group buys 1,200 acres above Winthrop

WINTHROP, Okanogan County — On a rocky hillock crowned with lupine and yarrow, Methow Conservancy Executive Director Sarah Brooks surveyed the Sunny M Ranch on the eve of a historic land deal. Below her, a dusty trail ran alongside irrigation pivots in a lush alfalfa field. Wind whipped through bitterbrush, competing with the sound of sparrow and meadowlark birdsong. Lynx, cougars and bears likely lurked in the dark woods beyond.

“This place is a microcosm of the Methow,” said Brooks, who led a breakneck six-month fundraising campaign to secure the land, one of only five unprotected large tracts in the Methow Valley. “If we do our job well, the land won’t change.”

The conservancy closed Thursday on the $6.2 million purchase of the 1,200-acre ranch. The organization plans to preserve 400 existing acres of farmland, hundreds of acres of wildlife habitat, and 10 miles of trails — and to build a new neighborhood on the outskirts of Winthrop that will provide affordable housing for Methow workers in danger of being priced out. The mixed-use project is among the first of its kind and could prove a national model for land conservation.

Until the conservancy’s purchase, the land was subdivided into 26 parcels held by a single owner. If sold on the open market, the parcels, with their sweeping valley views, would have been attractive to upscale homebuilders. While recruiting donors to the Campaign for Sunny M Ranch, the Methow Conservancy highlighted the prospect of more than two dozen new luxury properties looming above Winthrop.

“So many rural mountain valleys in the West never had a chance to have a clear say in what the land right around town looks like and how it functions for the community and for wildlife forever,” Brooks said. “We do.”

This vision represents a novel combination of land uses that are often framed in competition with each other — housing versus farmland, trails versus wildlife habitat. The strategy puts the Methow at the forefront of an emerging national trend, as land conservation groups known for preserving natural landscapes increasingly take on human needs like housing and farmland.

Fundraiser on the ranch

German billionaire Erivan Haub of the Tengelmann Group settled in Tacoma in the 1960s to expand his family’s grocery empire. Captivated by the American West, Haub and his wife Helga purchased 2,500 acres in the Methow in 1987, including Sun Mountain Lodge and the Sunny M Ranch.

Haub died in 2018. In May last year, his family sold Sun Mountain Lodge and 1,300 surrounding acres to Seattle-based hotel operators Gem Real Estate Partners. After the Sun Mountain deal, the Methow Conservancy inquired about Sunny M. The Haubs wanted to divest of that property, too. 

The conservancy’s vision squared with the Haubs’ track record of environmental stewardship — Helga Haub later donated to the fundraising campaign.

The parties had the property appraised and negotiated terms, reaching a purchase agreement in the fall. With a June 15 deadline, the conservancy launched its fundraising campaign in December, targeting $8.3 million, which would include a stewardship and maintenance fund to cover property taxes, plus the costs of farm building maintenance, the removal of invasive knapweed, and forest thinning to reduce wildfire risk.

Last winter, cross-country skiers on the popular Methow Community Trail passed signs promoting the fundraiser, proclaiming that a stretch of trail was for sale and at risk of development. Some 10 miles of skiing and biking trails cross the Sunny M property, with permission granted under a handshake agreement. In the event of a sale to another party, the possibility of negotiating with 26 individual landowners to maintain trail access was daunting.

Beyond the signs, there was a living, breathing billboard: a white-haired skier wearing a bib that read, “Loving this trail? Ask me about Sunny M Ranch.” Roxie Miller, 84, co-chaired the campaign and spent most winter days skiing on behalf of the fundraiser. 

“It’s an easy sell when you’re out there in the sunshine and you tell them that you may not be able to ski from the town trailhead to Mazama or Sun Mountain if we don’t preserve this land,” Miller said. 

As self-described farm kids, Miller and her husband, Carl, who died in 2020, became involved in valley conservation work so future generations could have an upbringing like theirs. 

“We became so interested in saving agricultural properties because we could see it would be a problem in the future with homebuilding — how do we keep these big tracts of land open?” she said. “It’s a legacy for my family and all the kids I know here in the valley to be able to give a gift to our future.”

Her pitch to valley visitors otherwise unaware of the precarious state of the Sunny M land was convincing: A record number of first-time donors pulled into the Methow Conservancy’s driveway. As of June 12, the campaign had raised $8.7 million from 1,506 donors, more than half of whom had never previously contributed to the conservancy. Dollars raised beyond the fundraising target will go into the stewardship and maintenance fund.

One first-time donor was Sarah Smith, the assistant head of school at The Bush School, a private school in Madison Valley that has a campus in Mazama. In April, the school hosted a public informational session on the campaign in Seattle.

“Sunny M is emblematic. If we do the right thing there, we’ll have the courage to do the right thing elsewhere,” said Smith, who was inspired to move west after visiting Jackson Hole, Wyo., as a 12-year-old. She returned more recently to find the Teton mountain town unrecognizable.

“We’ve seen it go the other way in so many other places,” she said. “Very few rural mountain towns have been able to plan for the future.”

The Sunny M deal is the conservancy’s largest direct land acquisition by a country mile, a move poised to change the DNA of the 27-year-old nonprofit as it enters the uncharted waters of land management and housing development.

“Owning land with this much complexity is one of the bigger, bolder things we’ve ever done,” Brooks said. 

The amenity trap

The Sunny M Ranch is one of only five land holdings in the Methow Valley larger than 1,000 acres that has no conservation easements in place, according to a conservancy land survey. “We don’t have Montana-sized ranches,” Brooks said.

But the Methow shares a Montana-sized problem: Outsized interest in relocating to mountain towns rich in outdoor recreation opportunities, or running short-term rentals there, has squeezed local wage-earning workers and small farmers. 

Megan Lawson, a researcher at Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics, co-authored the May report “The Amenity Trap: How high-amenity communities can avoid being loved to death.” She studied nationwide models of how places like the Methow Valley can proactively prepare for the impacts of development driven by outdoor recreation. 

A project of this scale, which marries pressing needs like affordable housing, preserved farmland, trail access and wildlife habitat, squares with her research on the types of civic infrastructure that can help mountain towns weather the influx.

“What the Methow Conservancy is doing is an example of how conservation organizations can leverage the existing superpowers that they have — landscape-scale conservation, long-term stewardship and navigating complicated real estate deals — for more urban problems,” Lawson said. “If conservation groups don’t get engaged in their towns and communities, the resulting sprawl directly impacts the great work that they’ve been doing.”

While recent land conservation projects in Vermont have mixed farmland and housing, and Bozeman built affordable housing and trails alongside a new 60-acre park and nature preserve, the Sunny M Ranch is among the largest and most ambitious projects of its kind nationwide.

“Land trusts learn from examples,” said Yale researcher Katie Michels, who studies the emerging trend of mixing affordable housing and land conservation. 

“There is an interest and hunger among land conservationists to build affordable housing,” she said. “The power [of the Sunny M campaign] is showing land conservation organizations that your peers are doing this and you can, too: How can we make sure everyone has a healthy place to live and has access to the outdoors?”

Not every foray into housing by land conservationists goes well, as Seattle-based Forterra learned when a partnership with the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe to harvest timber for prefabricated affordable housing blew up last year, leading to an internal investigation. But with this purchase, the Methow Conservancy believes its conservation track record will serve the valley’s most urgent concerns in one fell swoop.

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