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Palouse landowner honored for planting fields with wildlife in mind

Robert Zorb was chagrined at the lack of game on his Whitman County property in 1980 when he invited friends to join him for hunting.

“It was a bad year for deer and pheasants and I started looking into what I could do about it,” he said.

The answer was plenty, according to Ducks Unlimited. The national wetlands conservation group recently recognized Zorb with its 2013 Conservation Private Citizen Award at the 78th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Arlington, Va.

“Bob’s commitment to changing the look and landscape of his property is monumental,” said Paul Schmidt, DU chief conservation officer.

Zorb, 82, estimates he’s planted 150,000 trees on the farm and ranch land he owns in Washington’s Whitman and Asotin counties – “and I’m not finished,” he said last week. He also owns land near Potlatch, Idaho.

“My brother and I started out thinking we’d plant a few trees here and some brush there, then we kind of got carried away,” he said.

Using the federal Conservation Reserve Program along with generous helpings of his own funds and family labor, Zorb has become the Salvation Army for homeless critters in areas where wildlife habitat often is considered an unaffordable luxury.

“I’ve never been a farmer, but I know most of them don’t have the time or the incentive,” he said. “There’s no profit in improving farm land for wildlife.”

Charging sportsmen to hunt on private land is one way a farmer could recoup money for restoring and conserving habitat to produce wildlife “crops.” Checking erosion and conserving soil is another reason.

But many farmers hesitate to idle productive Palouse farmland and even the marginal acres, especially when grain prices are high.

Zorb said he wakes every morning and thanks God for what he can do for his family and wildlife. His youth wasn’t ripe with such blessings.

His mother raised her brood of six kids at St. John after divorcing his father, who lost his land in the Great Depression. Zorb was milking cows for neighbors as a sixth-grader and by eighth grade was living with other people and working on ranches and farms.

“I tried going to Eastern (State College) but I was a terrible student and came back to work on farms; I married a St. John girl,” he said.

He connected with a group of Louisiana investors to manage fertilizer plants in Palouse farm towns.

After 20 years, one investor invited him to take a chance in a rotation molding business that would pioneer the manufacture of large plastic containers for uses such as on chemical-spraying trucks. He and his wife, Eileen, moved to California to build a plant. “It turned out real good,” he said. “We made a lot of money.”

One of his wife’s relatives talked him into buying a farm in 1976. “At first, I said heck no; every dime I had was tied into my business.

“I was working hard,” he said, noting that he rarely could join friends who invited him to their elk hunting camps.

“I used to take a pen and tablet to the side of my bed, and when I’d wake up in the middle of the night with ideas or things to do, I’d write them down so I could go back to sleep.”

But the Zorbs both had roots in farming and his relative made a good case. Zorb bought that farm, and by the time the economy tumbled in 1980, he was flush with cash and took the buyer’s market opportunity to buy a few more.

“In some cases I tried to help a few people out, but they couldn’t hold on,” he said.

“The paperwork is terrible, but I love the land.”

The Zorbs still own about 7,000 of the 10,000 acres of agricultural land and forest they acquired in those years. What they did with the land was influenced by that poor hunting year of 1980.

“I’m really not much of a hunter,” he said, “but I had these out-of-state friends here and all I could remember was how good the hunting was when I was young.”

He took stock of his land and found many areas that never should have been farmed in the first place. “Some of it was too steep, erodible and marginal,” he said. “The yields weren’t worth the effort, but in some ways it was easier to farm everything.”

The federal CRP gave farmers a cash incentive to set aside land for wildlife. “Too much incentive in some cases,” Zorb said. “The government was offering $50 an acre to idle land that was netting $23 an acre in crops. Some people were putting their whole farms, including very productive land into CRP.

“Maybe the worst part was that some good land put in CRP otherwise would have been leased by neighbors to keep their operations running.”

Zorb is among many progressive Whitman County landowners who’ve found a balance in CRP that’s better for wildlife and the farmer.

“There’s a good example of how to use CRP,” he said. He pointed to classic waves of Palouse hills seeded to grain on the flats and ridges. The bordering steep slopes and “eyebrows” were seeded with permanent cover, trees and brush.

He’s planted ponderosa pines, junipers and elderberry along the shores of the Palouse River as well as up some of the tiny creeks draining his wheat fields – some of the most productive wildlife lands.

“We didn’t take out too many good farm acres, but look at this,” he said, driving up to a draw of trees and a billowing strip of willows shading a tiny creek snaking through the farm. “It’s full of pheasants,” he said. “We planted every one of those willows by hand.”

After a snowstorm one fall, he counted 300 deer on a hilltop above his habitat-enhanced slopes.

“The Palouse River isn’t that far away, but there are deer tracks all around the guzzlers we’ve installed in those eyebrows,” he said.

Zorb has learned a few things about planting habitat. He planted his first trees on a Whitman County hillside in 1940 as a hired hand for a landowner trying to reduce the dust that blew off fields.

In 1960, he helped plant trees that shade the farmer-built St. John golf course.

He’s seen government-sponsored habitat programs go to waste simply for lack of follow-up.

“Farmland isn’t a forest,” he said. “The trees need help.”

“They’d get some funding, plant 50,000 trees and most of them would be dead a couple years later. The roots can’t be curled up when you put the seedlings in the ground – something hired workers don’t always care about – and that you need to take care of the young trees for a few years.”

Sometimes he sets up tanks and drip irrigation.

“Once we started spraying and keep back the competition, our planting success was around 90 percent.”

Zorb is proud of one sweeping eyebrow holding the only trees for a mile around.

“It’s too steep for a tractor, so I hired a man with a horse team to plow a strip. We planted trees behind him and it worked.”

Zorb has shared his expertise with farmers in the Palouse region and agencies that help administer habitat programs.

“Bob worked with the Washington Department of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other organizations to help develop a long-term plan to improve his land,” said Bernard Brown, the state DU official who nominated Zorb for the award.

“Outside of the riparian and wetland areas, his land is still farmed using no-till farming practices, and helps support 12 farm families.”

Much of the land is farmed by family members. He sees a growing crop of grandchildren and great-grandchildren and even a great-great-grandchild who have a shot at a piece of his wildlife legacy.

“I hope they’ll understand what we’ve put into this and won’t just take it out or sell it off when they need a little more money,” he said.

There’s one sure-fire method of getting the kids to understand the value of habitat, he said, thinking back to his own epiphany.

“I encourage them to come here and go hunting.”