Jim and Betty Doerksen Choose to Leave their Legacy with LandPaths
Article and Photos by Rachel LaFranchi
Published January 1, 2016
|Jim and Betty Doerksen on their property near Mark West Creek. Jim recently underwent hand surgery due to years of chainsaw use on his heavily wooded property. Since purchasing the property, he has planted more than one million trees.|
Jim Doerksen described his decision to sell his 124 acre ag preserve to LandPaths as selfish. With no children to inherit the land after Doerksen and his wife Betty both pass, he knew the best way for the land to stay in agriculture and educate children about nature would be with LandPaths.
However, the Doerksens’ devotion to preserving their land and their dedication to agriculture seems anything but selfish.
The Doerksens’ property, Rancho Mark West, is a heavily wooded plot of land running along the Mark West Creek in northern Santa Rosa valued near $20 million. The Doerksens sold the land to LandPaths for a mere $1 million and the comfort of knowing what would become of the place they call home.
“I did it for selfish reasons,” said Doerksen, “I wanted to protect the property. We have no heirs, no children, so I could see someone getting this property and subdividing it. It can be broken down to five acre parcels and someone was going to develop this."
“I put all this effort into the land and I said ‘No. I’m not going to let this happen.’”
|One of two lakes on the Doerksens’ property.|
The Doerksens originally put their property into a conservation easement in 1993 with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation Open Space District shortly after it was formed. Betty recalls that the property originally wasn’t considered because it was too far from the 101 corridor, but they changed their mind after they saw how spectacular it was.
Doerksen, now 73, was born in a lumber camp in Manitoba, Canada, and his love for land and redwood trees began at a young age when his parents took a vacation to California and Mexico.
“They brought me back a calendar with all these beautiful pictures of redwood trees,” said Doerksen. “They also brought me a burl, and I turned it into a tree four or five feet tall. I was only five or six years old at this point, and this made a lasting impression.”
Doerksen went to school in Fargo, ND and studied civil engineering and mathematics. He moved to the West Coast to work for the Toll Authority of California and later became a hydrologist for Santa Clara County.
“At this point, I decided to make my dream come true and purchased a chunk of land with redwoods on it,” said Doerksen.
|Some of the trees on the Doerksens’ property are more than 24 stories high. Instead of measuring trees by traditional standards, Jim said it’s easier for people to grasp how tall the trees are by comparing them to the size of building.|
It was by accident that he heard of a couple looking to sell their land in Santa Rosa as he sought out land in Santa Cruz where he was living. In the late 60’s, he purchased the land from Rollie B. Nawman, an inventor who patented the payphone.
While the land, known as Rancho Mark West, was much more useable and flatter than other land he had looked at, Doerksen’s 500 acres did not have many trees planted on it. Over the last 50 years, Doerksen has planted more than one million trees on the property.
Through his first divorce, Doerksen lost 265 acres to his ex-wife and subdivided some. In conjunction with Betty, his second wife of 35 years, he still owns the 120 acres with a conservation easement which is the portion of land he sold to LandPaths.
The land came with vineyards, apples and prunes but with low market prices, they weren’t generating any income for the property. Over the next 25 years, Rancho Mark West was rented to Howard Furlong who ran sheep while Doerksen visited the ranch on the weekends.
As the Doerksens retired from their successful careers as realtors, they planted Christmas trees, a very successful endeavor for the couple. They retired from selling Christmas trees seven years ago, but keep a few token trees as an arboretum.
The Christmas trees, originally started as a way to generate income for the property, turned the Doerksens’ 120 acre ag preserve into something more: a place of education.
“We got these kids who came out to cut Christmas trees with their classes and they would ask me if they could do a hike,” said Doerksen. “I ended up encouraging that. There was kind of a movement. Kids were getting bogged down with TV, and I encouraged people to come out.”
|Nick Whittaker, education assistant for LandPaths, leads a group of students from Helen Lehman Elementary School at Rancho Mark West. Students learn about land stewardship, watersheds and more.|
For a while, the Doerksens facilitated all the students visiting the ranch. But as time passed, more nonprofits were formed, and the Doerksens earned a reputation within their community for what they were doing with schools.
Their work became more intensive, and as some nonprofits brought up to 8,000 children a year, the Doerksens had to train others to help with the tours.
At the same time, Betty recalls the public asking how they could access properties protected by the Open Space District, which is funded by a quarter cent sales tax in Sonoma County. As many easements don’t automatically allow public access to protected properties, the Doerksens, along with other property owners, were approached to become involved with the public.
The Doerksens have since been working with LandPaths’ program, In Our Own Backyard, which teaches students about watersheds, habitats and stewardship.
It was about four years ago when the Doerksens asked themselves “what’s going to happen to our property when we’re gone?”
Realizing they needed to do something, they explored many options, but it wasn’t until talking to Craig Anderson, the Executive Director of LandPaths, that they realized what they needed to do.
They sold the property, valued at almost 20 times more, for the $1 million price tag. They are continuing their partnership with LandPaths, while still owning the land until they both pass. When that happens, LandPaths will take ownership of the Doerksens’ property under the condition that they use it in perpetuity for educational and agricultural purposes.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” said Doerksen.
To this day, Rancho Mark West has hosted numerous forest organizations, representatives from all 28 countries of the European Union and more than 200,000 school children.