Bill Gombold has his memories of the land he owns in East Bethel, stretching back to when he was a toddler on outings there with his father and grandfather.

Now he's taken steps to ensure that 45 acres of woods, wetland and prairie will remain the way he's always known them.

Gombold is the 111th metro-area property owner to take out a conservation easement on his land, in cooperation with the Minnesota Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization. The land is desirable as natural space; it is adjacent to the Sandhill Crane Natural Area, and close to the Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area. Staying natural, it acts to extend those wildlife refuge areas.

Gombold still owns the land, and can limit access to his own friends and family. He still pays taxes on it, too, to the tune of about $200 a month. But neither he nor his heirs nor any future owner can develop the parcel, clear it or subdivide it.

"It is just a tremendous feeling for me to know that with all the land has offered for me and given me in enjoyment in 60 years, that I'm able to give something back to repay the good Lord who made the land," he said.

Family lore has it that Gombold's grandfather, Rudy Gombold, an electrician in St. Paul, got a line on the property and began leasing it from the Walter Jackson family in the 1920s. Through the years, children and grandchildren used the land as an escape from city life. Gombold's father, also named Bill, wanted to buy it, but the Jacksons weren't selling. Gombold offered to buy it, and although Walter Jackson had died, his wife wasn't ready.

But she gave him hope.

"What Mrs. Jackson told me was that someday she'd sell it to me, and not to worry about it," he said.

Finally, in the late '70s, just as Gombold was contemplating a move north, Mrs. Jackson's daughter called and said the family was ready to sell, not just the 45 acres the Gombolds had been leasing, but the entire 85-acre property. Gombold bought it, moved into the old farmhouse, and kept up the crops of corn and alfalfa until deciding earlier this decade to sell off the 40 acres that had been farmed.

During the development-mad 1990s and 2000s, Gombold received several offers for the remaining 45 acres.

"It was tempting because the money was so outrageous," he said. "But I could not come to grips with it and part with the land. ... This is not about me; it's just that I appreciate and love the piece of property so much I want to see it preserved that way for generations to come."

After weighing a few options, he said, he contacted the Minnesota Land Trust. The process of negotiating and securing the easement took several years, but was finished in late August. Gombold received a payment of $143,000 to help offset his costs, including future taxes, but that's a fraction of the $1 million-plus he said he'd been offered by developers. The money came from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, backed by the Minnesota State Lottery.

He and his children know that the decision will have a big impact on the parcel's resale value.

"I'm not well off, but it's not about money," he said. "I can sleep good at night. All that time I was tossing and turning about whether to take all that money and be a rich man, and I couldn't sleep. Now I can sleep like a baby because that land, as dear as it is to me, now has got a guiding hand, has got somebody looking over it."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409