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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Difference Makers: Chris DeForest helps property owners protect their legacy and their land

Chris DeForest is the conservation director of Inland Northwest Land Conservancy. He started out as the executive director of Inland Northwest Land Trust in June 1997 when he was hired as its first full-time employee, and transitioned in 2014 to Conservation Director. “I like helping people protect the lands they love, as working farms and forests and homes for our native wildlife, from hummingbirds to trout to elk and moose, plus wildflowers and native plants,” he said. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Chris DeForest plays a long game at the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, knowing that conversations about preserving a family farm or forestland from development might take years to show results.

“I saw your slideshow 15 years ago, and I’ve kept your card in my desk,” callers will tell him.

DeForest will meet with the property owners, spending hours at their kitchen table listening to stories about why they cherish their land and want it to stay open space. Then he’ll walk the property with them, sometimes stopping to eat an apple from an heirloom tree or to watch coyotes hunting in a meadow.

About 17,000 acres have been preserved as open spaces across Eastern Washington and North Idaho through the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy’s efforts – most of it under DeForest’s leadership.

The 90 protected properties cover a range of habitats: trout streams around Lake Pend Oreille; wetlands for waterfowl near Reardan; forested areas along Hangman Creek; and acreage near Liberty Lake and Dishman Hills Natural Area.

One of the conservancy’s current priorities is protecting undeveloped property between Palisades Park and Riverside State Park. Another focus is the forested corridor between Hayden Lake and Bayview, Idaho.

“If you are on the rollercoaster at Silverwood Theme Park, you look out at those forested foothills,” DeForest said. “It’s the viewshed from Highway 95.”

In some cases, the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy helps purchase the land and get it into public ownership. More often, however, the land remains privately held. The property owner continues to farm, graze or log or recreate on it, but sells the development rights through a conservation easement that provides tax benefits.

“I tell them, ‘You can have your cake and eat it, too,’” DeForest said. “You can preserve your family’s legacy and prevent a fight among your heirs.”

Much of the nation’s private forestland is in the hands of older owners – about 40 percent are 65 or older, and of that group about half are 70 or older, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Owners of farm property have similar demographics. As landowners age, succession issues arise.

“The default is that the acreage gets split up or sold, unless the landowner decides to do something for the land,” DeForest said.

DeForest is known for his wit, plaid-shirt couture and resoled shoes at the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, where he is the conservation director.

He brings people skills and a strong land ethic to the job, said Dave Schaub, the conservancy’s executive director.

“Chris is really a local conservation hero who’s gone unrecognized, probably of his own doing,” Schaub said. “He’s a masterful relationship builder. He doesn’t push people – he’s able to draw out the landowners’ hopes for the land.”

“Chris is one of the best at connecting with people,” said Joyce Alonso, a Spokane Audubon Society board member. “He’ll pique their interest, until someone who had no intention or particular interest in preserving the qualities of the land suddenly starts thinking, ‘I really don’t want to see it carved up into little pieces, or logged out or developed into a shopping area.’”

DeForest, 58, grew up in Seattle, but his family has strong ties to Spokane. His great-grandfather, Henry Hart, was a principal at Lewis and Clark High School, and the extended family still uses Hart’s cabin on Lake Pend Oreille.

DeForest spent his childhood summers at the lake, picking up heart-shaped rocks on the beach and marveling at the jewel-toned feathers on the hummingbirds that came to the cabin’s feeder.

He earned master’s degrees at Yale University in forestry and business administration. DeForest occasionally gets ribbed about his last name, but it’s French for “of the forest” and isn’t linguistically tied to deforestation, he said.

DeForest was working as a Forest Service economist in Portland in 1997 when he was hired as the conservancy’s first employee. He served as the executive director until 2014, when he stepped aside to be the conservation director.

“I won the lottery,” he said. “I get to work with people who love their land. I get to go to beautiful places that we have helped protect forever.”

DeForest’s first project was a conservation easement near Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Cougar Bay. Gertie and Wes Hanson wanted to protect the 160-acre farm that had been in Gertie’s family for nearly a century and provided habitat for elk, deer, moose and bears.

Gertie Hanson was dying of ovarian cancer, and the couple had put quite a bit of thought into how they wanted to structure the conservation easement.

“Chris shepherded the last bit through,” Wes Hanson said.

After Hanson and his late wife protected their land from development, other Cougar Bay property owners followed suit. About 700 acres have been protected near the shallow bay south of Coeur d’Alene – some through the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, and other parcels through complimentary work by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Kootenai County and the Nature Conservancy.

When multiple parcels are protected in a single area, it helps preserve migration corridors for wildlife and keeps larger pieces of habitat intact.

Word of mouth among neighbors helps spread information about conservation easements. DeForest also gives talks at garden clubs and Rotary luncheons and networks with estate planners and private foresters who have landowners as clients.

“We like to go where we’re wanted,” DeForest said.

In the case of Audubon Lake near Reardan, bird watchers alerted the conservancy about critical habitat threatened with development. The shallow lake is a resting and feeding stopover for waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway.

“It’s not a big lake, but it’s a very valuable place,” Alonso said. “At certain times of the year, you can see tundra swans. … There are red-tailed hawks, kestrels, ducks, geese, grebes and basic songbirds – from marsh wrens to yellow-headed blackbirds.”

When a “for sale” sign appeared on the property, the Spokane Audubon Society lobbied DeForest to get the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy involved. Money was raised for the $50,000 down payment. The conservancy bought Audubon Lake and held on to it until the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife could acquire it.

Preserving Audubon Lake is “one of the triumphs of environmentalists here in the past 25 years, and it’s one we treasure,” Alonso said.

“You know what the birds need,” DeForest told local Audubon members. “Let us do the real estate.”

This year, the conservancy has helped protect 3,000 acres in the region. “We’re swamped with the fruits of years of slideshows and PowerPoints,” DeForest said.

Between rapid population growth and climate change, it’s critical to identify and protect the areas native wildlife will need to survive in the future, he said.

“Long after I’m gone, I hope the hummingbirds are still showing up at the lake and feeding and raising their young,” he said.