WALLOWA LAKE — A long-held dream of reintroducing sockeye salmon to Wallowa Lake is one step closer for the Nez Perce Tribe.

On Thursday, Oct. 22, the tribe secured a conservation easement on the 9.22 acres at the head of the lake and along the Wallowa River owned by Wallowa Lake Lodge, LLC. The move guarantees that sockeye spawning and rearing habitat will be ensured for posterity.

“The main reason we have wanted this easement is for protection of the inlet for sockeye salmon and protecting the waters and the habitat around that area expressly for sockeye reintroduction and for the fisheries,” said Shannon Wheeler, Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee chairman. “The other reason — it’s a place that’s very meaningful to the tribe.”

The area is known to the Nez Perce as Waakak’amkt, or “where the braided stream disappears into the water,” Wheeler said.

The conservation easement covers all 9.22 acres of the lodge grounds. It maps out three conservation zones, each of which occupy about one-third of the property. One, around the lodge and cabins, allows for expansion of the lodge and cabins in areas that will not impact habitat or old-growth trees.

The second zone includes the lodge’s renowned lawn, shaded by old-growth trees, and a small wetland to the east. This is designated open ground/habitat. Here, the easement allows weddings, parties and general access that will not negatively impact the habitat values of the site.

The third zone is the wild and wet west side of the property. It includes the river, springs and wetlands that provide spawning habitat. This zone is designated as an aquatic habitat, and will remain undeveloped.

The specifics will be spelled out in a management plan that is under development, Wheeler said.

“For me, the easement’s everything because it cements together both the reality of buying the lodge and everybody’s hope that the tribe would be able to protect the head of the lake,” the lodge’s managing partner, James Monteith, said.

The Nez Perce Tribe purchased the conservation easement for about $686,000, which was less than the original appraisal of $941,300. The funds will allow Wallowa Lake Lodge, LLC, to retire most of the bridge-loans from Craft3 Bank and the Bank of Eastern Oregon that helped acquire the property in 2016.

“That turned out to be the right amount for us given the difficulties the Nez Perce Tribe faced during the COVID-19 pandemic” Monteith said.

Wallowa Lake Lodge was constructed in 1923. When it went on the auction block in 2015, a partnership of more than 100 shareholders, many of them Wallowa County residents, purchased the lodge for $3.1 million with the intention of maintaining the historic building and preserving its natural setting.

“Everybody had an equal inspiration of having the lodge continue as a lodge, and that protecting the head of the lake was very important,” Monteith said.

The property had been zoned to permit 32 homes or 122 condominiums on the land. Several hotel and development companies had placed sealed bids on the historic building and grounds, according to Monteith.

“The tribe worked closely with the Lodge ownership beginning in 2016 to design a conservation easement that would protect land and water resources surrounding the historic Lodge property,” said Ann McCormack, a Nez Perce tribal member and Wallowa Lake easement project leader. “With the help of grant writer Karen Antell and our legal staff member, Dave Cummings, fundraising began in 2018 and was accomplished in 2020. The outstanding generosity of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the Meyer Memorial Trust Fund, Collins Foundation, the Oregon Community Foundation, Healey Foundation, and the Pacific Power Foundation have funded the purchase of this easement.”

The easement is part of a growing presence of the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) people in their Wallowa County homeland. That includes the preservation of the Iwetemlaykin State Heritage site, Nez Perce participation in management of the county’s 1,800-acre East Moraine property, the work of the Joseph-based Nez Perce Fisheries in restoring coho salmon, lamprey eels and eventually sockeye to the rivers here, the Homeland Project in Wallowa and the Precious Lands preserve (Hetes’wits Wetes) in the Joseph Canyon area.

“Our efforts will continue to interact with the land,” Wheeler said. “That’s where our people are from. … When the Nez Perce people were leaving (in 1877), one of the elders asked people to turn around and look at the land because it might be the last time that they would see it. … So any chance that we get to come back, I see a lot of smiling faces when our people are there, and I think the land smiles when the Nez Perce are there.”

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