Robert Zorb was chagrined at the lack of game on his Whitman County property in 1980 when he invited friends to join him for hunting.
“It was a bad year for deer and pheasants and I started looking into what I could do about it,” he said.
The answer was plenty, according to Ducks Unlimited. The national wetlands conservation group recently recognized Zorb with its 2013 Conservation Private Citizen Award at the 78th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Arlington, Va.
“Bob’s commitment to changing the look and landscape of his property is monumental,” said Paul Schmidt, DU chief conservation officer.
Zorb, 82, estimates he’s planted 150,000 trees on the farm and ranch land he owns in Washington’s Whitman and Asotin counties — “and I’m not finished,” he said last week. He also owns land near Potlatch, Idaho.
“My brother and I started out thinking we’d plant a few trees here and some brush there, then we kind of got carried away,” he said.
Using the federal Conservation Reserve Program along with generous helpings of his own funds and family labor, Zorb has become the Salvation Army for homeless critters in areas where wildlife habitat often is considered an unaffordable luxury.
“I’ve never been a farmer, but I know most of them don’t have the time or the incentive,” he said. “There’s no profit in improving farm land for wildlife.”
Charging sportsmen to hunt on private land is one way a farmer could recoup money for restoring and conserving habitat to produce wildlife “crops.” Checking erosion and conserving soil is another reason.
But many farmers hesitate to idle productive Palouse farmland and even the marginal acres, especially when grain prices are high.
Zorb said he wakes every morning and thanks God for what he can do for his family and wildlife. His youth wasn’t ripe with such blessings.
His mother raised her brood of six kids at St. John after divorcing his father, who lost his land in the Great Depression. Zorb was milking cows for neighbors as a sixth-grader and by eighth grade was living with other people and working on ranches and farms.
“I tried going to Eastern (State College) but I was a terrible student and came back to work on farms; I married a St. John girl,” he said.
He connected with a group of Louisiana investors to manage fertilizer plants in Palouse farm towns.
After 20 years, one investor invited him to take a chance in a rotation molding business that would pioneer the manufacture of large plastic containers for uses such as on chemical-spraying trucks. He and his wife, Eileen, moved to California to build a plant. “It turned out real good,” he said. “We made a lot of money.”
One of his wife’s relatives talked him into buying a farm in 1976. “At first, I said heck no; every dime I had was tied into my business.
“I was working hard,” he said, noting that he rarely could join friends who invited him to their elk hunting camps.
“I used to take a pen and tablet to the side of my bed, and when I’d wake up in the middle of the night with ideas or things to do, I’d write them down so I could go back to sleep.”
But the Zorbs both had roots in farming and his relative made a good case.
Zorb bought that farm, and by the time the economy tumbled in 1980, he was flush with cash and took the buyer’s market opportunity to buy a few more.
“In some cases I tried to help a few people out, but they couldn’t hold on,” he said.
“The paperwork is terrible, but I love the land.”
The Zorbs still own about 7,000 of the 10,000 acres of agricultural land and forest they acquired in those years. What they did with the land was influenced by that poor hunting year of 1980.
“I’m really not much of a hunter,” he said, “but I had these out-of-state friends here and all I could remember was how good the hunting was when I was young.”
He took stock of his land and found many areas that never should have been farmed in the first place. “Some of it was too steep, erodible and marginal,” he said. “The yields weren’t worth the effort, but in some ways it was easier to farm everything.”
The federal CRP gave farmers a cash incentive to set aside land for wildlife. “Too much incentive in some cases,” Zorb said. “The government was offering $50 an acre to idle land that was netting $23 an acre in crops. Some people were putting their whole farms, including very productive land into CRP.
“Maybe the worst part was that some good land put in CRP otherwise would have been leased by neighbors to keep their operations running.”
Much of the land is farmed by family members. He sees a growing crop of grandchildren and great-grandchildren and even a great-great-grandchild who have a shot at a piece of his wildlife legacy.
“I hope they’ll understand what we’ve put into this and won’t just take it out or sell it off when they need a little more money,” he said.