Conservation group hopes to protect habitats, skiing, and affordable housing in WA's Methow Valley
An important wildlife corridor – and a key access point for cross-country skiers – could be parceled out and developed. But the Methow Conservancy is keeping it open to the public.
Cross-country skiers have kicked and glided along the Methow Valley’s snowy hills for generations.
“This is what people picture when they picture the Methow, right? You can see all the low hills and the big mountains in the distance,” said Sarah Brooks, executive director of the Methow Conservancy.
While she spoke, snow crunched underfoot as skiers snapped into their gear on the Methow Community Trail, an 18-mile route that links Whinthrop to Mazama, Washington.
Brooks’s organization is trying to buy 10 miles of ski, snowshoe, and fat-tire bike trails in an area known as the Sunny M Ranch. To do that, and to maintain the land, they’ve been working to raise $8.3 million.
“We've never done anything big like this,” she said. “But a supporter said to us, ‘Well, who are you if you don't do this, if you don't give it a try?”
They’re now nearing the finish line after nearly three months of breakneck fundraising, Brooks said.
Preserving the land
Washington’s Methow Valley is famous for its cross country skiing, and the Methow Community Trail is part of the largest network of groomed runs in North America.
“These trails have been a huge way to generate year round income for the valley,” said James DeSalvo, executive director of Methow Trails. “That's been critical to the development, the maintenance and the sustainability of the valley,” he said, adding that the Sunny M Ranch property is critical to the rest of the trail system.
For 35 years, this land was owned by the Haubs – a family of German billionaires – who also owned the Sun Mountain Lodge resort. The Haubs upgraded the trail system and worked to preserve the land before deciding to sell it in 2018, Brooks said.
GEM Real Estate Partners, of Seattle, purchased the resort and several buildings last year. But the Haubs gave the Winthrop-based Methow Conservancy a chance to buy the Sunny M Ranch land before putting it on the market.
The property includes wildlands that are important for black bears, cougars, lizards and birds, and it links habitats on either side of the Methow Valley, said Scott Fitkin, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It's kind of like the missing piece that fills in a corridor that will help facilitate wide ranging wildlife movement across the valley,” Fitkin said.
That linkage will become even more important as the climate continues to change, he added.
Watching for wildlife
Fitkin said he’s seen some of that wildlife movement while out in the field, on skis, or even from his dining room window.
One evening, he said, he thought he saw a deer approaching his home, which is near the Sunny M Ranch. “Then I realized, ‘No, that's not a deer.’ It was a cougar coming toward the house,” Fitkin said.
He and his wife raced around the house, peeking out from different windows.
“(The cougar) had turned around and was headed back the other way with two kittens following her. And she disappeared into the darkness,” Fitkin said.
The Sunny M Ranch creates an opportunity for people to watch wildlife in a “sustainable way” that doesn’t harm the animals, Fitkin said. In the future, he said, the area could also help the state study better management practices for wildlife and recreation.
Helping humans, too
The conservancy aims to buy 1,200 acres in all. They want to help not just wildlife, but also people: If the deal goes through, they’d set aside up to 2% of the area for new, affordable housing.
That’s a huge issue in the valley, said Rocklynn Culp, Winthrop Town Planner.
“We hear from local businesses that the biggest block to getting employees is that they can't find places for them to be housed,” Culp said. “We hear of locals that camp, that lose their rental, and they can't find anywhere else, and so they end up having to leave.”
Wildfires destroyed many homes in 2014 and 2015, Culp said, adding that the problem has grown even more severe over the last five years.
In 2021, the Winthrop Town Council declared a housing crisis, and the local planning commission dug into the barriers to affordable housing. That year, the median home price was more than double the median income in the valley, according to the Methow Housing Trust. “This community's sense of urgency around it has just grown,” Culp said.
She hopes the Sunny M land deal would provide some relief.
“We're in this place where we don't really have much developable land left in Winthrop, so we need to start expanding our horizon about where we think that housing need is going to be met,” Culp said.
The Methow Conservancy’s plan would also affect an alfalfa farm, which currently leases about 400 acres from the Haubs. Brooks said the conservancy would continue that arrangement.
“One of the biggest barriers for local farmers is access to land,” Brooks said. “And if we own it, then we can write a long term favorable lease for them that gives them the security they need to know that they can be there and make improvements on the land.”
The home stretch
It’s not clear what would happen if the conservancy doesn’t meet its fundraising goal. The property is not on the market right now, and no one else has publicly offered to buy it. But Brooks fears that much of the land would be used to build high-end cabins.
“I think it's so ingrained in the DNA of the Methow Valley, it's hard to even imagine not having access to this massive trail system,” said Jill Russell, as she zipped up her boots and snapped on her skis.
Russell and her wife moved to Winthrop for the outdoors.
“We were literally sitting at home drinking coffee, and we're like, ‘Oh my God, it’s such a beautiful day.’ It took us six, seven minutes to drive here to this trailhead, and we can go out as long or as little time as we want,” Russell said.
And she wants to keep it that way.
But the Methow Conservancy says there’s no real need to worry. They’ve already raised most of the $8.3 million they need to buy and maintain the land, and they expect to reach their final goal by this summer.