The Sisters School District has had their eye on the 160-acre Wildhaven Preserve, located just a 20 minute drive north of town, for around two years.
This week, their dreams for the property are starting to come to life.
“It’s a really unique property,” said Superintendent Curt Scholl. “It has a pine stand, it has the desert grassland and it also has a really amazing old-growth juniper stand so it really hits a lot of the unique natures of Central Oregon.”
Gil and Vivian Staender purchased the property in 1970, and eventually left it in the care of The Nature Conservancy in 1982 with the understanding that it would be protected for wildlife.
In recent years, The Nature Conservancy has been on the hunt the donate the property to someone else who will take over its management.
“It started with a conversation with us and the Forest Service,” Scholl said. “And eventually became that because of our focus on place-based learning and some of our outdoor educational programs like our IEE (Interdisciplinary Environmental Expedition) program…that we might be a prime candidate for developing more of an outdoor education facility on the property.”
The district expect the transfer to be complete within the week, when they’ll start brainstorming about the many possibilities for the land.
“We looked at an educational intake center…a couple of potential overnight places to stay with a nature trail to be able to walk, study, draw, you name it,” Scholl said.
Caretakers Mark and Leslyn Grape have lived on the property for more than 20 years.
“When we stepped foot on this ground and into Nature House for the first time in the spring of 1998, we knew Wildhaven was unique and rare, powerful and Sacred,” they said in an email on Wednesday.
The Grapes were almost forced to move in 2017, when Wildhaven was almost transferred to the U.S. Forest Service instead.
“We were deeply troubled knowing that this was not what the Staenders had envisioned,” they said. “It was a long and arduous process to convince TNC to consider another possibility.
“However, with help from the public and some very special friends and neighbors who supported us along the way by “filling in the blanks”, we were finally able to reach a compromise with TNC to transfer Wildhaven to the Sisters School District.
“Not only will this decision keep Nature House intact but we have high hopes that it will also be a means to nurture the integrity of this Sacred land while providing a place where our children can connect to this special piece of Earth and all of its living creatures.
“As the current caretakers and fervent advocates for the Staenders vision, we are grateful for the excitement and passion of the SSD to continue the legacy of Gil and Vivian Staender while providing much needed environmental education! It takes a village!”
Scholl said the district plans to keep the Grapes on in their caretaker role after the transfer is complete.
“They’ve been out at that property for a very long time and have a lot of historical knowledge with it, and if there’s a way to keep that relationship going and impart some of that knowledge on our kids that could potentially visit out there, then we’ll continue that conversation with them,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy’s Oregon Forest Strategy Director Pete Caligiuri also provided a statement.
“TNC is thrilled to transfer the Wildhaven Preserve to the Sisters School District to support their efforts to expand environmental education and their Interdisciplinary Environmental Expedition curriculum for their students,” he said.
“The partnership with the district is a wonderful way to honor the legacy of Wildhaven and the original donors of the preserve, Gil & Vivian Staender, since Gil taught for many years with Sisters Schools and loved bringing students onto the land.
“We look forward to continuing to partner with the district to maintain the conservation value of the land and ensure students enjoy the area’s iconic old-growth juniper trees and ponderosa pines for many years to come.”
Scholl said Gil Staender used to serve as a third grade teacher in the district.
“We think that is some of the power in the story, that it is now potentially going to be used by the district to educate students,” he said.
The district will start by looking at the ways they can practically implement their ideas. “Potentially the intake center first, looking at that, and then branch out to the two overnight platforms, development of the trail, being able to start taking our kids out there and having them do some work as well and do some study,” Scholl said.
“We’re excited about the potential for our students. I think having such a interesting piece of property that has the natural pines, old growth juniper, and that desert grassland kind of environments all in one piece really gives us an interesting place for our students to go out and experience Central Oregon.”