Standing on a sweeping ridge overlooking Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, Dale Johnson cuts the figure of the classic rancher. Wearing work boots and faded jeans under a striped button-up and ball cap, the robust octogenarian seems thirty years younger as he takes in the vista spread a thousand feet below us—verdant valley rising to majestic mountains, with a canyon’s crest yawning out on the right. The Johnson family has resided here since 1888, when Dale’s great-grandfather claimed a 160-acre plot that, through three centuries and four generations, grew into a sizable ranch situated at the canyon’s terminus. Dale has managed that homestead since 1979, and he now leads us via narrow dirt roads to a mountain tree farm bearing the legacy of his predecessor, uncle Howard Johnson, who planted, treated, and harvested these 4,000 acres of timber by himself from passing on the ranch until his death in 2006.
The family holds deep roots in the Wallowa Valley, and Dale professes hope that future generations will continue their forebears’ stewardship of the land. Despite urbanization looming on the horizon that vision remains plausible. Howard’s daughter Joanna owns and manages the tree farm, and Dale’s four children will share ownership of the ranch when he dies. The venerable patriarch seems unconcerned about the future, perhaps because of the past. Surrounded by thriving ponderosa pines, he observes, “the land’s been in the family since the 1880’s, and I’d say we’ve taken pretty good care of it.” Looking around, I’d have to agree.
By: Hunter Dunn