School district acquires Wildhaven Preserve


Last updated 2/9/2022 at Noon

Gil and Vivian provided

Nature House was built by hand

Sisters schools will soon have an exceptional outdoor environmental education classroom in the Sisters backcountry. The Wildhaven Preserve, a 160-acre property in the Stevens Canyon area that has been cared for and protected as far back as 1970, became the responsibility of the Sisters School District following a transfer from the Nature Conservancy, which had overseen the land since 1982.

Originally purchased as a private conservation area by Vivien and Gil Staender in 1970, the land includes a unique ecosystem of native grasses, ponderosa pines, and ancient junipers. It is also a haven for wildlife.

From the outset, the Staenders named the Nature Conservancy to inherit the property, in order to ensure that it remain environmentally protected in perpetuity.

According to a recording by Gil Staender relating the history of the place, the Staenders became disheartened by the rapid development of the area where they lived near Lake Oswego and went looking for a property they felt they could actually conserve.

According to the recording, the Staenders bought the land for $100 an acre from a man who claimed to have won the property in a poker game.

The Staenders, who were true pioneering environmentalists, had made a plan to live in the Alaska wilderness, literally in the Arctic, for a year around the time of the purchase, and drew up a will naming the Nature Conservancy as the beneficiary of the property in case they didn’t survive their Arctic experiment.

The Staenders did survive, and returned to Oregon to live on the property. They lived in tents for nearly seven years before completing the Nature House, built almost entirely of native rock from the area. Gil Staender taught for a few years in Sisters schools, and he and Vivien used the property as a living example of conservation of a wild place, which included having visitors come and learn there.

In 1982, the Staenders dedicated the property to the Nature Conservancy in a ceremony highlighted by a message from former Governor Tom McCall, a Central Oregon native, who wrote, “Few, if any of our (Nature Conservancy) preserves have ever come to us with their management and education program in place and operating, as at Wildhaven. Already you have given to many a nature experience never to be forgotten and you taught the true meaning of the term ‘environmental ethics’ to many hundreds of children. Your decision is an act for which future generations will be thankful.”

Vivien Staender died in 1997, and Gil Staender in 2016.

In recent years, the Nature Conservancy had shifted its approach to managing conservation properties and sought to find a separate entity to oversee Wildhaven. It appeared the Forest Service would take on that role. But regulation issues, along with other complications and conflicts, arose and those plans didn’t pan out. However, in the discussion about the property, the notion of the school district becoming steward arose. This ultimately led to the district acquiring the property with the intent of continuing its protection as well as using the property for educational purposes “in perpetuity.”

The school district is committed to continue managing and protecting Wildhaven as the Staenders wished, according to superintendent Curt Scholl. The caretakers who have lived on the property for over 20 years remain on site.

Discussions have begun about what will happen next with the property, and Scholl says the district completely understands and respects the legacy of the Staenders, as well as their wishes for how the property will be managed and cared for in the years ahead.

“Considering the Staenders and their history in our community, being able to use the property for education is great as long as we can maintain a full commitment to protect the property as a whole,” said Scholl.

Scholl affirmed that there is much to think about and share with the community in the days ahead.

“Now that the transfer has taken place we will need to focus on next steps,” he said. “I see it as a tremendous asset for environmental education to all of our K-12 students.”


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