By Brad Nye.
The Deschutes Land Trust was founded in 1995 to provide community-based land conservation within the Deschutes Basin. The Land Trust’s mission is to “cooperate with landowners to conserve land for wildlife, scenic views and local communities.” While the Land Trust founders had specific conservation needs they wished to address, our main focus in the early years was building awareness of the organization. Few people in our service area were familiar with land trusts or conservation easements, and good project opportunities were relatively few. As a result, the criteria we used to screen and pursue projects were fairly general in nature.
Over the years, awareness of the Land Trust has increased, conservation opportunities have grown in number, and our work has become increasingly strategic. Now, instead of simply responding to opportunities, the Land Trust proactively identifies and cultivates conservation projects that address the region’s greatest conservation needs. Like many other land trusts of our size, we employ a variety of tools that extend beyond the standard land trust approach of accepting tax-driven conservation easements or donated properties. Because the ultimate measure of success in conserving vital natural resources includes objectives outside our specific niche, we also devote greater energy to collaborating with other conservation groups.
One example of this type of collaboration is the Deschutes Collaborative (the “Collaborative”). This collaboration, which includes the Land Trust, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, the Crooked River Watershed Council, and the Deschutes River Conservancy, supports the once-in-a-lifetime effort to reintroduce salmon and steelhead to the upper Deschutes River. Salmon and steelhead have been absent from the upper river since 1968, when efforts to pass juvenile fish downstream through the newly constructed Pelton-Round Butte hydroelectric project, having met with little success, were abandoned.
In the late 1990s, Portland General Electric (PGE) and the Warm Springs Tribes filed applications for a new federal license to operate the dams. The two entities began the relicensing process as competitors, but eventually joined forces as partners in the ownership of the project. As a condition of the new license, PGE and the Tribes committed more than $100 million to restoring fish passage through the project.
This commitment to restore fish passage at the dams brought heightened focus on the condition of fish habitat within the proposed reintroduction area. Habitat was already in poor condition by the time Round Butte Dam was completed in 1964, but the Christmas flood that occurred later that year set the stage for a new level of degradation. In response to the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened many project-area streams. From a fisheries perspective, these streams now looked more like ditches, with few of the pools and slow-water areas that our native fish depend on for survival and reproduction.
Habitat studies completed during the relicensing process had confirmed that many of the stream reaches proposed for reintroduction were in poor condition. Although the Tribes and PGE had committed a certain amount of funding for habitat restoration, no entity had stepped up to lead the restoration effort. Recognizing this, the Land Trust launched its Back to Home Waters program and hired a project manager to conserve land along project-area and to rally other local groups around the cause of restoring habitat to support the reintroduction effort. Our acquisition of the Camp Polk Meadow Preserve—widely regarded as providing some of the best historic habitat on Whychus Creek—was our first land conservation project completed under this new program.
Ten years and dozens of projects later, the Land Trust, the Deschutes River Conservancy, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, and the Crooked River Watershed Council are engaged in a formal collaboration focused on protecting and restoring habitat throughout the reintroduction area. These four groups began work on a formal collaboration because of natural ties between their areas of expertise and service areas. It took more than two years of regular, and many times heated, discussions to agree on how the group would function, and we wouldn’t have reached agreement without the gracious help of staff from two outside entities, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and the National Forest Foundation.
As part of these partnership discussions, each participant was required to confirm its organizational priorities and clarify its role within the reintroduction effort. A natural result of this clarification was the identification of restoration needs (e.g., screening irrigation diversions to prevent entrainment of juvenile salmon) that fell within the natural purview of one of the groups, even though the group lacked the capacity necessary to address the need. One of the Collaborative’s first priorities was to jointly help develop resources to meet these individual needs.
The organizations within the Collaborative operate primarily in four basic areas: land conservation, water conservation, stream restoration, and fish passage. The Land Trust permanently conserves and manages important properties, the Deschutes River Conservancy works with irrigators and irrigation districts to improve efficiencies and keep more water in streams, and the Watershed Councils restore stream habitat and remove fish-passage barriers. The four organizations meet regularly to identify, prioritize, fund, and implement the highest priority conservation and restoration projects in the reintroduction area.
The Collaborative has become a model for collaborative ecosystem restoration and drawn great interest from public and private restoration funders. For example, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Oregon’s largest restoration funder, has contributed more than $8 million to the Collaborative’s work over the past four years. We are currently working to expand our funding base to a national level so that we can better meet the funding requirements of the sustained effort it will take to provide sufficient high-quality habitat for the reintroduction effort. While the Collaborative took significant energy, sacrifices, and trust to develop, and continues to require those investments today, the ecological returns to date have more than justified the effort. We invite you to visit us and our project sites to learn first-hand about the Deschutes Land Trust, its partners, and our collaborative approach to watershed restoration.
Brad Nye is Conservation Director of the Deschutes Land Trust.
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