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Heartleaf Bluffs: A Gem Hiding in Plain Sight

April 12, 2024
Heartleaf Bluffs. Photo by Paloma Ayala.

by Executive Director Kevin Gorman

Over the past century, the Gorge has changed dramatically. Roads, dams, power lines, housing development, and recreation trails have altered the landscape. But one 105-acre property in the Eastern Gorge remained unchanged. The same family owned it for decades without any development on the land, with the exception of farm roads and a small quarry. The property, with two large bluffs facing the Columbia, sits just above the Balfour-Klickitat Day Use Area and across the river from the Tom McCall Preserve. With no development applications throughout the history of the National Scenic Area, it was a truly a gem hidden in plain sight. That is, until it was put up for sale last summer for $2.4 million.

On a beautiful Monday morning in June 2023, Friends staff visited the property with a realtor. The land was zoned to allow two large homesites on the prominent bluffs boasting stunning vistas east and west down the Gorge. The property came with a “wow” factor that staff had experienced in only a handful of properties, including the land trust’s first purchase, the site of today’s Cape Horn/Nancy Russell Overlook. Before the tour was over, we were convinced we had to do everything in our power to purchase this special property.

However, we were faced with two significant challenges. The first was that our land trust acquisition fund was down to $18,000—a bit short of the multi-million-dollar asking price. The second challenge, which we learned of later that day, was that the seller already had received a full-price offer for the property. But that offer required financing, while the seller preferred a cash offer. That provided us with a very small window of opportunity.

In the hyper-competitive real estate market of the Columbia Gorge, this is not unusual. Landowners who decide to sell their property typically receive multiple offers and commonly agree to offers above the listing price. Simply put, if you are not a cash buyer, you are most often not competitive. If you cannot move quickly, you will miss the opportunity.

At 105 acres, Heartleaf Bluffs is the second-largest preserve currently owned by Friends. It sits above the Balfour-Klickitat Day Use Area, only one mile away from Friends’ largest preserve, Lyle Cherry Orchard. The property is home to a diverse array of wildlife and plant life, including pristine stands of Oregon white oak and the widespread heartleaf buckwheat that inspired the preserve’s name.

For Friends’ land trust, our land acquisition fund provides the capital we need to be competitive—capital that allowed us to secure the Catherine Creek property a few miles down the road. But it wasn’t the position we were in as we considered this amazing property.

However, the issue of a depleted land acquisition fund was not as dire as it sounds. We knew we would soon be launching the Share the Wonder campaign and that this preservation opportunity would inspire our supporters to contribute. And we also knew we could secure a low-interest loan within a few days through Craft3, a nonprofit lender that can provide “bridge loans” for land acquisitions.

But there was already another full-price offer, so what we needed most urgently was someone who could make a cash offer within 24 hours. Then, if the offer was accepted, they could assign the contract to our land trust. So we began seeking out someone with the financial capability and the trust that we would follow through.

Discover the grandeur of Heartleaf Bluffs through 4K drone footage.

That real estate angel came in the form of one of our board members who co-owns a real estate development company. Staff asked the board member if their company could make a $2.5 million cash offer ($100,000 more than the offer they had already received) on the day following the site visit. They agreed, and from that point on, we moved quickly to secure a loan and get the necessary land trustee and board member approvals to proceed. After visiting the property for the first time on a Monday, by Friday Friends’ land trust was in a contract to purchase the property.

With the acquisition secured, it was time to learn more about the property. Staff found an impressive oak forest and a variety of wildflowers, including the heartleaf buckwheat that inspired the preserve’s name—Heartleaf Bluffs. Dry swales on the bluffs made us suspect there would be vernal ponds in the spring, which turned out to be the case. Wildlife seen and expected to be seen includes bald eagles, black-tailed deer, coyotes, Lewis’ and pileated woodpeckers, ground squirrels, and rattlesnakes. We have already begun conducting surveys of plant and animal activities and will know more as we go through four seasons of ownership. Decades of grazing have certainly impacted the habitat, but we expect to have on-site restoration volunteer opportunities by spring 2025.

As the most expensive acquisition in our land trust’s 19-year history, the task now is to raise the funds to finish this transaction. Consider making a gift to Share the Wonder to help preserve places like Heartleaf Bluffs, as well as future gems hiding in plain sight.

As the most expensive acquisition in our land trust’s 19-year history, the task now is to raise the funds to finish this transaction. Consider making a gift to Share the Wonder to help preserve places like Heartleaf Bluffs, as well as future gems hiding in plain sight.

To reach our $6.6 million goal for Share the Wonder, we’ll need the support of the entire Friends community. Our success requires action from each of us. By sharing the wonder with a gift today, you can help Friends make an even bigger impact on the lands, wildlife, plants, and communities of the Gorge.