Elk NetworkPurpose and Generosity

Bugle - Featured Articles , General | February 27, 2024

(Photo credit: Gretchen Yost Photography)

Lasting Legacies

by Caroline Weiss

A Wyoming couple’s dedication preserves access to more than 47,000 acres of public land.

Around the turn of the millennium, Linda Zager and her late husband, Edwin D. Johnson, noticed a change in the southwestern corner of Wyoming they called home.

Properties were being bought up that served as gateways to huge parcels of public land. “No Trespassing” signs were popping up on many ranches that once allowed visitors to cross over into public land, creating massive islands of unreachable public acreage.

The couple fretted over the fate of La Barge Creek, one of their favorite spots, just miles from the home they built outside La Barge, and the wildlife that lived in this part of the Wyoming Range.

“It was kind of selfish,” Linda jokes. “But my husband and I didn’t want anybody to build on that property. So, we thought, ‘well, we’ll just buy it and just leave it like it is.’ So, we did.”

However, their motivations were anything but selfish. They purchased a 160-acre lot to preserve the land and wildlife they loved.

Before Edwin passed in the early 2000s, he and Linda spent their 16 years of marriage living, camping and hunting in Wyoming, developing their passion to both protect vital elk habitat and the public’s access to it.

In 2004, shortly after Edwin’s death, Linda fulfilled his final wish to protect the property. She did so through a Retained Life Estate. An RLE allows you to deed your home, farm or vacation property to RMEF, receive a current income tax deduction and retain use of the property for your life.  Afterwards, RMEF will sell the property and use the proceeds to further its mission for elk country.

Born and raised in central Wisconsin, Linda always dreamt of moving out west near big mountains. After two and a half years stationed at West Point, New York, with the Army, she returned to Wisconsin to study instrumentation.

In 1981, Linda moved to Wyoming and got a job at a natural gas compressor in Big Piney. In her 10 years with the company, she worked as an operator, electronics technician and, most importantly, met Edwin. By the ‘90s, they married and built a home outside La Barge.

Linda fondly remembers their time around Wyoming, especially La Barge Creek, in seasons punctuated by elk. Falls were spent filling their freezer with elk, moose and any other tags they could snag, some of which Linda got with traditional bows. They spent spring days searching the hills for shed antlers, summers and winters watching wildlife enjoy the land as she and Edwin did.

“There’s no place in the world—and I’ve been around—like Wyoming in the summer and fall,” says Linda.

When they learned of Edwin’s illness in the early 2000s, Linda and Edwin decided they wanted to ensure the protection of big western landscapes, like the one that brought them together, for generations long after. With no children, they wondered what to do with the La Barge Creek property after they passed.

Around the same time, Linda came across RMEF and the conservation work immediately piqued her interest. She’s been involved with the Kemmerer Chapter ever since. For Linda, whose two favorite things about RMEF are habitat conservation and getting young people outside, the donation was a way to honor Edwin while giving the elk and the public access to important outdoor space.

While the 160-acre plot may seem small, the La Barge Creek property enhances access to more than 47,000 acres of public land in the Wyoming Range, including the 14,000-acre Lake Mountain Wilderness Study Area and the 33,000-acre Miller Mountain Management Area. In 2016, Linda donated her rights to use the property and RMEF conveyed it to The Bureau of Land Management, which now manages the parcel and the public lands that lay beyond it.

Linda and Edwin’s donation also protected a key big game migration corridor for elk, moose and deer as well as crucial habitat for Canadian lynx and cutthroat trout. “I thought about when you conserve a big animal like an elk, and conserve their habitat, all the animals also have a place,” says Linda. “The animals have to come out of the mountains in the winter, and there’s no place for them to go. They just need habitat.”

Linda is now also a member of the Trails Society, which recognizes those who have included RMEF as a beneficiary in their estate plans through a will, trust, life insurance policy, retirement account or otherwise. Splitting her time between Wyoming and New Mexico, Linda frequently travels, camps, hunts and admires elk. Because of the dedicated efforts of Linda and Edwin, the public can now forever walk and hunt land that might have been lost.

When asked about what working with RMEF and wildlife has brought to her life, Linda gave a simple answer: “Purpose.”