The first time he drove up the road leading into Wildhaven Preserve, up a bluff dotted with gnarled, moss-covered juniper trees more than a millennium old, Mark Grape burst into tears.

The 160-acre private preserve north of Sisters, surrounded on all sides by Deschutes National Forest land, is known for its old-growth juniper and for the dozens of bird species that visit during the spring. More than anything that was present in the preserve, Grape was struck by the aura of the natural environment there.

“I could not feel any pain anywhere,” Grape said. “There was no suffering, no sadness.”

Since that day in 1998, Grape and his wife, Leslyn, have lived in a secluded cabin on the preserve without running water — chasing off poachers, watching the flowers bloom during the spring and smelling the junipers after a summer rain.

“It’s like heaven, being surrounded by mountains like we are,” Leslyn Grape said.

That changed in December with a visit from a representative from The Nature Conservancy, the conservation organization that had owned the preserve for 35 years. The Grapes were told they had to leave by June, because the conservancy planned to donate the preserve to the U.S. Forest Service.

The donation allows the nonprofit conservancy to focus on the acquisition of larger parcels while giving Wildhaven to a steward that already owns the surrounding land.

But the Grapes are concerned that opening up the private preserve to the public is a betrayal of what the preserve’s previous owners intended for the parcel.

The couple fears permanent damage to its fragile ecosystem, which has been protected and managed privately since 1969.

“You don’t take something that’s been private for 48 years and then give it to a public entity,” Leslyn Grape said. “You’re breaking your promise.”

Wildhaven in the beginning

In 1969, environmentalists Gil and Vivian Staender bought the 160-acre parcel of land from Jack Shumway, a sheep farmer who claimed he won the land in a poker game. Rather than develop the land, the Staenders converted it into an early nature preserve, available to view by appointment and invitation only.

For the first seven years the Staenders spent on the property, they lived in a small wooden structure that Mark Grape calls “the Packrat Hotel.” In 1974, however, the Staenders began building a 2,000-square-foot cabin which would come to be known as Nature House. Dwight Baker, a retired Boeing employee who knew the Staenders and helped build Nature House, said the owners tracked down weathered stones and wood from dead ponderosa pines on and around the property to build the cabin.

“Gil ranged far and wide around the countryside looking for rocks,” Baker said.

Gil Staender lived in Nature House until 1982, when he gave Wildhaven to The Nature Conservancy. Mark Grape said former Gov. Tom McCall, a friend of the Staenders, was going to be the keynote speaker at the dedication, but health issues forced him to write a letter instead.

“Our hope is that succeeding generations will at least realize that to the Nature Conservancy, managing Wildhaven is a labor of love,” McCall’s letter reads.

In the spring of 1998, the Grapes responded to a classified ad calling for people willing to be caretakers for the rustic parcel in exchange for room and board. To the pair, it seemed perfect.

“We were totally smitten,” Leslyn Grape said.

The couple married under an 800-year-old juniper tree that August, three months after moving into Wildhaven. Mark Grape tells a story of three ravens landing near them during the ceremony, each cawing in turn.

“It was like these three special guests showed up to bless us,” he said.

Living at Wildhaven comes with its own challenges. The Grapes have stories about scraping ice off the latrine and sledding down the hill to get supplies during particularly harsh winters. Still, the couple agreed they never questioned their dedication to the parcel or the plants and animals that live there.

“It’s not just a house. It’s not just our home,” she said. “It’s a relationship.”

A private reserve going public

The Nature Conservancy began exploring options for the 160-acre preserve in 2014. The conservancy owns more than 100 million acres in 72 countries, but Derek Johnson, director of protection and stewardship for the nonprofit’s Oregon chapter, said the organization will look at what parcels it can donate — if there’s a good fit for the property under different ownership — as a way to advance the conservancy’s goals.

Because Gil Staender was the founder of the preserve, the conservancy sought his opinion about potentially transferring the property to another entity, though Johnson said the Forest Service was not mentioned by name. Staender said he was open to a transfer, according to Johnson.

“Being the original donator, his wishes matter,” Johnson said.

Still, Baker and the Grapes believe he would not have signed off if he’d known the Forest Service was involved. They emphasized that the Staenders understood how vulnerable the ecosystem is and wouldn’t want to open it up to the public after keeping it closed for nearly five decades. Baker added that the Staenders were broadly skeptical of the federal government’s management of public land.

Johnson said the nonprofit does look at the cost of land ownership when deciding what parcels to dispose of, but emphasized that it looks for fit first. He added that the conservancy has worked with the Deschutes National Forest on forest thinning projects, and thought the federal agency would be a good fit for the parcel.

“I think what makes Wildhaven an opportunity is that we have a really good partner in the Forest Service,” Johnson said.

Ian Reid, Sisters district ranger for the Deschutes National Forest, said the nonprofit reached out last year about a potential transfer. Forest Service employees toured the facility in March to evaluate the fit for the agency.

“There are certainly some benefits,” Reid said.

There are drawbacks as well. Johnson said the property has a residual mining right attached, which the conservancy is working to remove ahead of a potential transfer. Reid added that Nature House poses a challenge for the Forest Service to utilize on public land. With a large facilities backlog already, Reid said the Deschutes National Forest is reluctant to commit to a use.

Johnson said The Nature Conservancy would love to see the house and preserve used for outdoor education for children, which he said would align with the wishes of the Staenders while exposing more kids to the area. However, Baker had a gloomier prediction.

“If the house survives, it’ll be a miracle,” he said.

An uncertain future

No one can say for sure what will happen to Wildhaven.

After being notified in December that a land transfer was likely, the Grapes wrote letters and searched for legal avenues to contest the transfer but didn’t find any. Reid said the donation does not require public comment and can’t be appealed by members of the public.

Johnson emphasized that the donation is not final, and the conservancy will be meeting with the Forest Service on April 16 to discuss the transfer.

“We’re really confident, but you never know with real estate deals,” Johnson said.

While they acknowledged there likely isn’t anything legally unsound about the donation, the Grapes described it as morally wrong to open up the preserve, citing the impact on wildlife that has used it as a safe haven for nearly five decades.

Jim Desmond, The Nature Conservancy’s Oregon state director, said the Grapes’ concerns are overblown and don’t do justice to the stewardship work the Forest Service has done in the past.

“People are jumping to all sorts of extreme worst-case scenarios,” he said.

Both Reid and Johnson said they understand the Grapes’ predicament, but added they believe this is the best option for the parcel.

“We’re human beings, and we certainly empathize with their situation,” Reid said. “But our mandate is really to provide the greatest good for all Americans.”

As for allowing the couple to stay on the property after the donation, Reid noted that Forest Service rules make it difficult for the agency to assume ownership of occupied structures.

The Grapes received a formal 90-day eviction notice in March and compared the experience of leaving the home they lived in together for 20 years to losing a family member. But despite the way it ended, Leslyn Grape said she was still grateful for the opportunity to live at Wildhaven.

“It’s been a love story,” Mark Grape added. “A very painful ending, but a very wonderful love story.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,