"I've been thinking about the notion of "private property" on and off for months. I wrote one column about it, and have touched on it in others, but the ideas keep buzzing in my head. On Sunday, they attacked me as I was gliding down the hill at Ferguson Ridge on a pair of short sculpted skis that made me feel like I was 14.

I thought about Oregon land use planning, which arrived in the state just a little ahead of my 1971 landing. About the farmers and forest land owners across the state who championed agricultural land and open spaces, and wrote the original land use planning legislation. About John Freels coming to every local planning meeting and advocating a 640-acre minimum for building a house on rural land. About the ranchers who packed the county courthouse to object to a condominium development on Wallowa Lake's terminal moraine - they feared a bigger airport and part-time residents who would object to agricultural odors.

I thought about the changing nature of "property," how in 1971 the property in rural Oregon was timber/grazing, agricultural and rural residential, and how those terms meant something about who lived on the land and how it was used. I nodded at Chief Joseph, who said that the land was mother earth, and could not be bought, sold or divided. What a strange idea that is today!

And then I skied into 1983, when the Eagle Cap Ski Club had a little rope tow behind the west moraine. They-we, as I was a member by then - didn't own any land, the easements were limited, cabins were encroaching, and there was a bigger hill and more land at Ferguson Ridge.

Looking to land softlyWe were in the midst of working out a lease agreement at Fergie when the owner fell into bankruptcy. We were hoping for a soft landing with one of the lien holders and still writing a lease agreement when the property went to sheriff's auction. A lawyer told us we were safe, but Gardner Locke, then president of the ski club, went to the auction anyway. In fact, there were other bidders, so Gardner made a winning bid and called a meeting of the ski club board to figure things out.

And 10 of us, board members and parents of skiing kids, ranchers and business owners who wanted to make sure there was a place for downhill skiing in Wallowa County, decided to buy the land. We called ourselves 10-280 - 10 people buying 280 acres - and arranged financing. We each agreed to pay $500 down and $80 per month for the foreseeable future. We agreed to lease it back to the ski club for a dollar a year and insurance. At a general ski club meeting, a couple of people expressed fears that the 10 of us were in it for private gain, so we wrote the by-laws so that no one could sell shares except to the group, that such sale would be for dollars paid in without interest, and that the ski club would have a first option to buy the property on similarly reasonable terms.

Children and communitySki club members jumped in enthusiastically. We built a road, cleared ski runs, erected a used t-bar purchased years earlier from Schweitzer Basin, moved old shacks from the west moraine to the new hill on flatbed trucks, built a "lodge" and an outhouse. We recruited others in the community, and the sale of family memberships at $500 - payable over two years and allowing free skiing - financed the construction of the lift. Some of the new members had little or no interest in skiing, but they were interested in children and community.

In 1983 $500 was a lot of money, and we scrimped to make monthly payments. Business and farm loan rates were at 15-18 percent, and many of us had to borrow from Peter to pay the ski bill.

But we did, and on Sunday at Fergie I couldn't have been prouder. The original 10-280 is now nine. The land is paid for and we're growing older, but we'll do what we have to to make Fergie survive and prosper, for ourselves and for the new people who have stepped in to run the machinery and watch their own kids ski. It's their ski run now as much as it's ours.

I think of how precious that land is to us - not because we own it, but because of what it has been for 22 years and promises to be for generations after us. I think of people buying lakefront houses and tearing them down to build replicas of Maui condos, of the farm land that John Freels wanted to protect being chopped into 10-acre ranchettes, of the federal government selling 300,000 acres of national land to pay for roads and schools that are necessary, but will wear out while the 300,000 acres are divided and sold, divided and sold.

I think they don't know what property means. On Sunday at Fergie, I wondered if we could find 10 people on the hill willing to put up $2,500 now and $400 per month (I'm allowing for inflation) for the foreseeable future to keep a ski run in Wallowa County. And I felt a little sorry for the guys who buy and sell, buy and sell, and never own the land as we all own Fergie.

Rich Wandschneider, a longtime Chieftain columnist, is the executive director of Fishtrap, Inc., a group centered around writing and the West. He can be reached via the Web at (www.fishtrap.org).

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