Most members and volunteers are first drawn to the Elk Foundation because of their love for elk and a desire to help conserve elk habitat and protect hunting. But the more they become involved and connect with people, the more they realize that the friendships they make are one of the biggest reasons they stay committed.
For Debbie Surface and her late-husband Richard, people were the reason the two ventured into RMEF territory in the first place. In 2003, friends Terry and Irene Bates invited them to attend the Wallowa Mountain Chapter banquet in Enterprise, Oregon.
“We thought it would be a great place to get to know our neighbors,” Debbie says. The couple ran Richard’s family business-the 300-acre Surface Nursery-in Gresham, but often stole away to their cabin on their beloved 678-acre ranch along Little Sheep Creek outside of Joseph, which they had purchased in 1997. The infectious camaraderie and energy of the RMEF members and volunteers they met at that banquet sucked them in. They both upgraded to life members in 2004 and became regular fixtures at banquets, chapter events and Elk Camp.
But one thing weighed heavily on their minds. They had seen neighboring ranches broken up by development over the previous years and they worried the same thing might happen to their property. One day in 2006, Debbie was flipping through a Bugle and came across an article on conservation easements. A light bulb went on in her head, and she called Bob Bastian, RMEF northwest senior regional director. A year later, the ranch was safely protected by an easement held by the foundation.
“It was the best option,” Debbie says. “We loved having elk and deer around us when we were at the cabin and were pleased we had found a way to keep it wild for them.”
Debbie’s love of wild places and wild critters first took root when she was a child. A Portland native, she often accompanied her father, a dory fisherman, on his forays to the sea, as well as on his hunting trips for elk and deer. As an adult, Debbie developed a fancy for winter recreation, and she and Richard spent countless hours snowmobiling on Mount Bachelor. The couple traveled the globe on exotic fishing expeditions and even enjoyed a photo safari in South Africa in 2008.
Richard passed away the following year, and Debbie, determined to carry on the legacy they had shared, continued to run the nursery with the help of her longtime employees. She also maintained the ranch and deepened her relationship with RMEF. She’s a valued member of the Wallowa Mountain Chapter, assisting with their annual banquet by donating trees to the auction and generously bidding on items during the event. An Imperial Habitat Partner, Debbie attends every Habitat Council meeting and Habitat Partner reception she can work into her busy schedule.
“She is a very dedicated supporter of the foundation and what we do,” says Chad Klinkenborg, RMEF regional director for northern Oregon. “Debbie’s the kind of person who, no matter what you ask her to do or what you invite her to, she’ll be there. She loves to be kept in the loop and is always available to help.”
For example, when Klinkenborg put out the ask for someone to cook at a volunteer barbeque and fence pull near La Grande this past August, Debbie was the first to raise her hand. She and her friend Brad Peterson, also a RMEF life member, hauled a trailer down to a state park near the Starkey Experimental Station, cooked dinner for 20 volunteers, served as camp hosts for the evening and then prepared breakfast for the crew before they headed out to pull a half mile of barbed-wire fencing and replace it with wildlife-friendly fencing the next day.
Debbie’s vibrancy and generosity extend beyond RMEF to the Joseph and Enterprise communities. Donated trees from Surface Nursery line Main Street in Joseph. Debbie also donates trees to the annual Future Farmers of America (FFA) auctions and even set up a memorial scholarship fund for the Joseph FFA in Richard’s name. She continues to entertain friends from near and far at her cabin on the ranch, and this past June invited Elk Foundation founders Bob Munson and Charlie Decker, foundation staff and local committee members to her cabin for lunch and refreshments following the local Habitat Partner reception at the Starkey Experimental Station.
“I love the ranch,” Debbie says. “It’s the most beautiful place in the world, and I love sharing it with people.”
This love is evident in the way she stewards the ranch for the 300 elk that calve and rut there, along with mule and white-tailed deer, grouse and a variety of warblers. Debbie and Richard planted wildflowers and restored timber stands by thinning trees in some places and planted young ponderosa pines in others, says Bill Richardson, RMEF lands program manager for Washington and Oregon. And this past summer, Debbie brought in cattle to chew off decadent grasses in an effort to stimulate succulent regrowth before fall.
In 2009, the Surfaces decided to gift the whole ranch to RMEF after they both pass away. “We both wholeheartedly believe in the Elk Foundation’s mission, so it just made sense,” Debbie says. Ever since then, she has been devoted to keeping the habitat in great condition.
Richardson says RMEF is honored to be the recipient of this gift of elk country, and it’s especially meaningful coming from someone who has already given so much to the foundation’s mission and its people. “We can’t commend her enough for the effort she’s made for RMEF,” he says. “Debbie’s conservation ethic and generosity is unsurpassed.”