- Associated Press - Saturday, December 9, 2017

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) - Gliding down the glassy McKenzie River in an aluminum drift boat, it’s hard to believe we just pulled off Interstate 5 to reach the boat ramp at Eugene’s Armitage Park a half-hour ago.

But the harsh industrial grind of traffic on the interstate has already begun to fade into the background as we slip silently along with the current, heading for a rendezvous with the Willamette a few miles downstream.

On a mild fall day, a reporter and photographer for the Gazette-Times joined Joe Moll of the McKenzie River Trust and Michael Pope of the Greenbelt Land Trust for a floating conversation about the future of Oregon’s most iconic waterway.

Both men are key players in the Willamette Focused Investment Partnership, a major push to reconnect old flood channels, replant long-gone floodplain forests and improve habitat for threatened fish and wildlife along the river’s main stem.

Moll perches in the boat’s narrow stern and plies the oars while the rest of us sit up front and take in the view.

At first, signs of civilization are fairly frequent: an overhead gas pipeline, a bridge, a gravel mining operation, a few scattered houses and homeless people’s tents. But most of these soon disappear, replaced by the sights and sounds of the natural world.

“We’re quickly in a pretty wild area,” Moll points out. “Here we are, just a stone’s throw from downtown Eugene, and it’s kind of a wilderness experience. You don’t see too many hand-of-man kinds of things.”

And it’s true. Subdivisions, farm fields and industrial sites crowd around the lower McKenzie and much of the Willamette, yet when you’re on the water, those signs of human development remain mostly out of sight and out of mind, screened from view by galleries of tall cottonwoods lining the riverbanks.

JOINING FORCES

The conversation flows as we bob and weave among the riffles, and suddenly the river doubles in width as we round the end of a gravel bar and the McKenzie joins the Willamette.

“This is it,” Moll announces. “This is the confluence.”

Moll positions the drift boat in an eddy where the two rivers come together, holding us in place with small strokes of the oars while we talk about restoration efforts in the Willamette basin.

Since 2008, the Willamette Focused Investment Partnership, or FIP (initially known as the Willamette Special Investment Partnership, or SIP), has funneled tens of millions of dollars in state, federal and private money into a coordinated effort to return stretches of the river and its floodplain to a more natural state.

One of the things that made this initiative unique is that it involved long-term funding commitments from each of the major partners - the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, which receives a dedicated portion of state lottery funds to benefit threatened fish; the Meyer Memorial Trust, one of the largest charitable foundations in the Pacific Northwest; and the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that distributes electricity from a system of 13 hydropower dams on major Willamette tributaries.

The assurance of financial backing over the long haul encouraged land trusts, local watershed councils and other conservation groups to think big, submitting grant applications for large-scale restoration projects that seemed completely out of reach before.

“When you get a commitment . to invest in long-term ecological restoration,” Pope said, “you start to see a pretty strong return.”

The approach developed by the Willamette FIP focuses on preserving and enhancing “anchor habitats,” sizable tracts of land with high restoration potential at strategic locations along the river. Among the more notable to date are the Willamette Confluence, a 1,270-acre former gravel mining operation owned by The Nature Conservancy where the Coast and Middle forks of the Willamette come together at Eugene; Green Island, an 1,100-acre parcel held by the McKenzie River Trust where the McKenzie meets the Willamette; and Harkens Lake, 404 acres of former farmland managed by the Greenbelt Land Trust in the Willamette floodplain near Monroe.

“They are no longer just dots on the map,” Moll said. “Some pretty significant pieces of land have been protected.”

Funds provided through the investment partnerships have helped buy land and purchase conservation easements from willing sellers, remove invasive plants, rehab old gravel pits, reopen blocked flood channels and replant former agricultural lands with native trees and shrubs.

“What we’re seeing right now is the investment that was made five, six, seven years ago with respect to restoration is really starting to pay dividends,” Pope said. “A lot of these sites have emerging forests that are 10 or 15 or 25 feet tall.”

NEW BEGINNINGS

A mile or two below the confluence, we pull the boat up on a gravel beach and get out for a walking tour of Green Island. The McKenzie River Trust acquired the property in phases, starting in 2003. In those days the island was mostly farmland, with an old sand and gravel mining operation at one end.

It’s a very different place today.

The gravel pits have been reclaimed for fish and wildlife. More than a mile’s worth of levees have been removed. Old flood channels have been reconnected to the river. And tens of thousands of native trees have been planted on ground that previously was cleared for agriculture.

Moll leads the way to a section of land that was replanted with native trees in 2013. This part of the island, used for growing crops just a few years ago, is now crowded with black cottonwood, red alder, bigleaf maple, Oregon ash and other species that once covered large swaths of the Willamette River floodplain before European settlers cut most of them down for farming.

Some of the cottonwoods are already 15 feet high, and signs of returning wildlife are everywhere. Deer tracks and coyote scat dot the ground, and some of the young trees have been felled by enterprising beavers.

“This forest was a missing element,” Moll said. “We don’t have nearly as much riparian forest as we used to.”

A few miles downstream at Harkens Lake, the Greenbelt Land Trust is engaged in a similar project.

To prevent flood damage to adjacent properties and avoid alarming the neighbors, most of the dikes and revetments have been left in place. But there, too, the river has been allowed to return to parts of its old floodplain, bringing deposits of nutrient-rich sediment that revitalize the food web. The seasonal floods nourish a diverse assemblage of insects that, in turn, sustain a variety of larger creatures, from juvenile salmon and Oregon chub to migrating neotropical songbirds.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

These types of large-scale restoration projects simply weren’t practical before the advent of the Willamette Special Investment Partnership.

“That, to me, was one of really important outcomes of the SIP,” Pope said. “We would not have embarked on some of those (projects) without the assurance that we would have the money to do the restoration work.”

Moll seconded that opinion.

“Prior to the SIP I think people thought the Willamette was so big it wasn’t worth working on,” he said. “The baseline that was established during the SIP and FIP really did show that there was some work that could be done.”

The investments that have been made so far include money for long-term maintenance, ensuring that the progress made toward restoring natural floodplain function and bringing back fish and wildlife habitat won’t be lost to neglect.

Still, conservationists who work in the Willamette agree that much more work remains to be done. They’re hoping to consolidate the gains of the last several years and build on the momentum that’s been created through the investment partnerships.

But the flow of money that’s been driving all that progress is starting to taper off.

The Meyer Memorial Trust has said all along that it intends to pull out of the partnership by 2019, turning its attention to other projects. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board is committed to funding the Willamette FIP through 2021, but its involvement beyond that point is uncertain. And the BPA’s financial obligation to restore fish and wildlife habitat in the Willamette basin is slated to expire in 2025.

With that in mind, conservationists like Pope and Moll have begun looking for alternative funding mechanisms to support Willamette restoration work after those sources dry up - but it’s still far from clear where that money might come from.

“I’m not sure how many more of these big, landscape-scale conservation projects we’re going to be able to do,” Pope said. “Unless there’s some magic source out there that’s going to guarantee 10 years of funding, it’s going to be hard to bite into that.”

___

Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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