PUBLIC PROFILE: Della Merrill, Membership Director Southern Oregon Land Conservancy
Rogue Valley Messenger: The goal is for 20,000 acres to be set aside by 2020. You are halfway there. What needs to happen to reach that goal?
Della Merrill: Vision 20/20 is an aspirational goal for 20,000 acres conserved. Even though we conserve more acres each year, protecting an additional 10,000 is a big task. However, there are quite a few large parcels of land with high conservation values in our region. SOLC can protect land by purchasing it when available, or by working with a landowner who wants to place a conservation agreement on the land. Both of these scenarios take time, expertise, and funding. We have the expertise and staff capacity. When the opportunity arises to protect vital habitats for future generations of wildlife, plants, and people our biggest task is to raise the funds needed. We are always reaching out to our community to build a broad base of members and supporters through educational opportunities, fun outdoor activities, and a variety of events.
RVM: Southern Oregon Land Conversancy is more than “conserving” tracts of land. There is an educational component—hikes to discover mushrooms, book clubs. Is this the chicken or the egg? Meaning, do people first become involved by going on hikes with you, and then provide support—or vice versa? Asked differently, how do people most commonly get involved?
DM: Oregonians have a deep respect and appreciation for land. Yes, people definitely do connect with SOLC through our free spring and fall outings. We offer over 30 opportunities to get outdoors, be on the land with an expert naturalist, and learn about nature. Creating a connection to our natural world is critical to helping people understand our need to live sustainably. Our members are also a big source of inspiration. They recruit new members. Just like the Rogue Valley Messenger, they spread the word about the importance of land conservation. We ask people to think about their personal conservation mission. As a land conservancy, we can help people fulfill their personal mission by working together to protect healthy habitats that provide us with so much beauty, joy and of course clean water, fresh air, and incredible food.
RVM: You are a fifth generation Oregonian! Is there a particular tract of land or a house that your family once had, and lost?
DM: Most of the land my family owned over the years was rural farm land in Klamath County and as far as I know it all remains as farmland. None of it, however, has been conserved. Farmland is facing increasing pressure as farmers retire and the land is sold. Sometimes the land will be broken into smaller parcels, portions may go out of production, or it may even be developed. Last year, the Oregon House and Senate created the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Act, the state’s first voluntary farm and natural resource conservation program. Perhaps one of my former family farms will someday be protected with funding from the new law.
RVM: The organization is 40 years old this year. If you could travel back to 1978, is there advice you would give the founders? Or, what would you say to them?
DM: I think the founders of this organization did a phenomenal job. Through thoughtful governance, hard work, and steadfast determination they built a land conservancy that is well-respected and so appreciated in our community. We actually still have members who were part of the founding team. I sometimes think of land that we might have protected 30 years ago, but is developed now. Could we have moved faster on projects? Maybe. However, I am very grateful to the founders for first developing a strong organization, broad community trust, and staff expertise that is the basis for the work we do today.
RVM: As property values have continued to ratchet upward in Oregon, have you seen people’s attitudes about land conservation change over the past several years?
DM: I don’t have any hard data to back me up, but I feel that rising property values have been a wake-up call for some people. Yes, some see the opportunity to benefit by higher land costs. However, many people understand that rising real estate values is sign of increasing pressure on our open spaces and natural lands. People appreciate the immediacy of problems such as rampant development, climate change, and population growth in the Pacific Northwest. More people are inspired and motivated to get involved. Conservation agreements allow people and nature to coexist.