A Legacy of Conservation - Columbia Land Trust
The Wiancko Family partners with Columbia Land Trust to conserve Nestwood Forest

Just outside the City of Portland, at the western edge of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, stands the 820-acre Nestwood Forest. This is one of the largest privately owned forests in Multnomah County, which Columbia Land Trust has now permanently conserved through a decades-long philanthropic collaboration with Cynthia and Dennis Wiancko.

“I am very grateful for the upbringing I had,” said Dennis, when asked how he came to care so deeply for the natural world. “My mother and father were nature lovers. Growing up, I spent a lot of time outdoors and developed an appreciation for conservation very early on.”

The name Nestwood originated from the acronym NEST that Dennis and his neighbors created to stand for “New Earth Stewardship Trust”, a reference to his broad conservation philosophy.

“One of our helpers Ryan, a forest aficionado and talented woodworker, started calling the woodlands Nestwood and the name stuck,” said Dennis. “It makes sense—this forest is our nest; it’s where we live and where we fledge.”

Nestwood Forest is located less than a mile from the Columbia River, and adjoins the National Scenic Area, making it especially valuable as wildlife habitat because of its connectivity with other conserved landscapes.

“This site represents an increasingly rare example of a nearly intact West Cascades forest,” said Columbia Land Trust Conservation Director Dan Roix, “It provides great wildlife habitat, fosters climate resilience by sequestering carbon, and benefits water quality.”

Dennis’ parents, Tom and Sibyl Wiancko, purchased the initial 250 acres in 1966. Over the years, Dennis and Cynthia worked to acquire adjacent parcels with the intention of creating a large, cohesive, connected landscape.

Situated in the Cascade foothills, the high point of Nestwood Forest is 1,300-foot Ross Mountain, an ancient cinder cone. “The ad my parents saw in the Oregonian called it an ‘all fine view property’, and it certainly is,” said Dennis. “You can see the Columbia River in two different directions, you can see Mt. Hood… the views used to be better, but the trees just keep growing,” he joked.

Most of the rain that falls at Nestwood Forest makes its way to Big Creek, which flows into the Sandy River and, ultimately, into the Columbia. However, three small springs on the north side of Ross Mountain drain into Latourell Creek, which flows directly to the Columbia over the famous waterfall of the same name.

Dennis eventually bought the property from his parents, constructed a house, and moved to his Home Place on Ross Mountain full-time. Shortly thereafter, Cynthia joined a friend up on the mountain for a walk. Dennis and Cynthia married in 1993 and a new era began.

Dennis has never tired of exploring Nestwood. “I always feel like a young boy when I am out there,” he said. “I go for a walk, stop by a tree that draws me in, follow a creek, seek out the fragrant fringe cup or rare phantom orchid. I always want to see what is down the next slope.” Over the years, he and a team of helpers lovingly built a network of trails that crisscross the property, complete with bridges, benches, and signage.

Nestwood Forest is rich in flora and fauna. Over the years, Dennis has seen black bear, coyote, bobcat, deer, and many species of birds (favorites include Swainson’s thrush and pileated woodpecker). He also finds great inspiration in the cultural history of the landscape, and his research into the land’s history—from stewardship by Indigenous people, to dairy farming, to a major fire in 1902—has inspired poems, plays, short stories, and countless other creative endeavors and community gatherings.

The Wianckos had been purchasing adjacent properties for their conservation value, little by little, for about 20 years until 2010, when a neighboring partnership that included hundreds of acres of timberland dissolved. Over three years, they acquired all 554 acres that became available.

“Lots of people had questions about why I was doing this, but conservation was always in my mind,” he said. Dennis and Cynthia considered various conservation methods before deciding to work with Columbia Land Trust. “I was aware of land trusts,” Dennis said, sharing that he was initially concerned about the permanent nature of land trust conservation, but once he learned about management plans, and how they can be responsive and shift over time, he saw the potential. “I wanted all the land to be managed under a unified vision,” he said. Years of relationship building between the Wianckos and Columbia Land Trust went into the project, as we worked together toward the shared goals of conserving the land to benefit wildlife, encourage native plant diversity, improve water quality, foster climate resilience, and provide recreational opportunities.

The Nestwood Forest conservation project has two main components. On the western side of the site, Columbia Land Trust purchased 405 acres from the Wianckos that we will manage, called the Howard Canyon Natural Area. To the east, the Wianckos donated a conservation easement on 382 acres including their Home Place, Ross Mountain, and the surrounding fields and forestland. The conservation easement is a legal agreement between the Wianckos (and any future owners) and Columbia Land Trust that permanently protects the land from development or commercial logging.

The East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District was an important supporter of this project. District Vice Chair Mike Guebert noted that “EMSWCD’s investment in Nestwood Forest represents our largest land transaction ever. Conserving Nestwood Forest addresses climate change impacts, protects and enhances soil and water resources, and is a significant milestone for our Land Legacy Program, which has now helped protect more than 1,000 acres.” He added, “We are excited to work with Columbia Land Trust and the community on future opportunities for our urban constituents to visit and enjoy the site.”

“It is remarkable what Dennis and Cynthia have done, how they acquired all this land over time with the vision of creating a large conservation area,” said Dan. “When I started working at the Land Trust 15 years ago, there was a file on my desk about this project, and it grew larger as they acquired more land. This project took many years to complete, but when you think about how this land is now permanently conserved and will benefit many generations to come, 15 or 20 years is just a short moment with that perspective.”

Land Trust Natural Area Manager Emily Matson, who will be leading management of the Howard Canyon Natural Area, explained the current condition of the site. “The forest condition is really varied,” she said, “which reflects how it was shaped by wildfire and logging over the years.” Some areas burned heavily or repeatedly in the early 1900’s and some were logged as recently as the early 2000’s (before Dennis purchased the land), but others–especially along the creek canyons–have towering cedar, Douglas-fir, bigleaf maple, and hemlock trees that are more than 100 years old. There are invasive plants present, like Himalayan blackberry, but many of the forest stands that weren’t harvested recently have relatively intact, diverse understories. “The Land Trust will do some riparian enhancement and planting, but overall the creek corridors are in good ecological condition,” said Emily. “Some of our initial stewardship efforts will be focused on re-planting harvest areas to set them on a trajectory towards healthy conifer forest.”

All of this work is part of the long-term, adaptable management plan Columbia Land Trust creates for every landscape under our care. The two parts of Nestwood Forest are forever connected through their conservation, and the Land Trust will collaborate with the Wianckos and future generations on management strategies for the entire area, anticipating that these relationships will ebb and flow over time, just like the natural processes we are working to protect.

In addition to building a stewardship plan for future habitat enhancement projects, and Land Trust team is developing a community engagement plan to create opportunities for people to connect with nature at Nestwood Forest. “We are doing a lot of outreach to figure how to best engage with different groups and inform our public access plan,” said Emily. “We are prioritizing outreach to Tribes and Indigenous communities, as well as the local community near Corbett and organizations that serve historically marginalized groups across the Portland metropolitan area, since Howard Canyon is only a half hour drive from the city.”

“This project is particularly important because of the rapid population growth of the Portland-Vancouver metro area,” said Dan. “Maintaining large, intact natural areas like Nestwood Forest is essential for mitigating the impacts of climate change, and has many other benefits for nearby communities, large and small.”

When the project was completed at the end of last year, Dennis, Cynthia, and Columbia Land Trust staff gathered together atop Ross Mountain to celebrate. “It was very touching,” Dennis said, “to look around the circle and see these young professionals, whose job it is to care for this land that Cynthia and I love so much, and to hear them individually express their own love for Nestwood Forest. Thank you, Columbia Land Trust!”

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Generous support from the Wiancko Family, East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, The Conservation Alliance, and Killian Pacific made this conservation project possible. We’d also like to thank former Columbia Land Trust Executive Director Glenn Lamb, who dedicated years of work to this project.

Read more nature stories in our latest Fieldbook.