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Alex Schwartz
(Klamath Falls) Herald and News

With $162 million headed to the Klamath Basin in the next five years for ecosystem restoration projects, money may no longer be the limiting factor in the push to make life easier for endangered species in the watershed.

“This is as exciting of a time to be involved in restoration in this basin as there has been definitely since 2013,” said Adam Johnson, acting field supervisor for the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office. “We are really in a hopeful and great place as far as ecosystem restoration goes.”

But the real hurdle, according to many people in the local restoration community, will be finding projects to spend all this money on.

Particularly along the tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake, there are plenty of levees to be removed, springs to be reconnected, willows to be planted and pastures to be fenced — but not enough private landowners ready to take on those projects.

“Money is no longer much of an issue for us, at least currently,” Johnson said. “Right now, I would say that the biggest hurdle we run into is finding willing landowners who want to do this work.”

That's not necessarily because farmers and ranchers in the Upper Klamath Basin don’t want to restore their lands and improve habitat for fish and wildlife. Many find potential projects too overwhelming or may not know how to get started on them. But thanks to the recent funding, there are now perhaps more resources than ever to help get projects off the ground. All a landowner has to do is ask.

Partnering for fish and wildlife

When Joe Garrett and Nate Ganong purchased Bailey Flat Ranch in the fall of 2020, they knew they wanted to restore the natural footprint of the North Fork Sprague River that ran through their property and make the surrounding forest more fire resilient. They had a broad vision for the land — renamed Harmony Preserve — but they didn’t know how to achieve it on their own.

That’s where the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program came in. Separate from the agency’s regulatory obligations, the Partners Program aims to conserve species and ecosystems through voluntary restoration projects on private land so that, ultimately, those regulations are no longer needed.

Johnson said that in 1986, before C’waam and Koptu were listed as endangered and USFWS staff in the basin began writing Biological Opinions to regulate irrigation diversions, the Service originally set up shop here to implement restoration.

“Our office with the Fish and Wildlife Service was initially established ... really to do this exact work,” he said.

The Partners Program acts as a nexus for restoration in the Klamath Basin. It helps connect landowners interested in a variety of projects with the funding and expertise needed to complete them. Two Partners Programs technically exist in the Upper Basin: One at the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office, geared mainly toward fish-focused projects, and one at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, specializing in migratory bird habitat.

Landowners who want to engage in restoration projects contact Partners Program scientists, who then use their expertise, federal funding and connections with local conservation organizations to make those projects a reality.

“Without our partners, we cannot succeed in our mission,” Johnson said. “It’s right there in the name of the program.”

Throughout the entire process, Ganong said he never felt pressured into changing the goals for Harmony Preserve or doing something he wasn’t comfortable with. There are no commitments during the planning stage, allowing landowners to change course or back out at any time prior to getting boots on the ground.

“There was no obligation. It was just presented as: ‘Here’s some ideas we have that we think would be helpful to accomplish your vision,’” Ganong said. “But there’s no loss of your private property rights, the decision-making and so-forth. You retain that.”

Knowing they bought the property to restore it, Garrett and Ganong’s ranch’s manager put them in touch with Tyler Hammersmith, a Partners Program hydrologist at the Klamath Falls Office. Hammersmith brought in Charlie Erdman, restoration project coordinator with Trout Unlimited, and both walked the property with the landowners just a few days after they purchased it.

“We spent three hours walking the river with them and talking about what could be done to bring it back to its natural state,” Garrett said.

The Harmony Preserve owners sent a mission statement to Hammersmith, outlining their goals for the land. But Johnson said a formal description isn’t a requirement — Partners staff are happy to help folks brainstorm what works best for their unique properties.

“Having that initial idea, even if it’s pretty vague, is a really great first step for landowners,” he said.

A couple months later, Hammersmith sent back a work plan, identifying scientific assessments to be made that would inform the work on the ground. Garrett and Ganong said that was a major benefit, eliminating the need for them to commission — and later pay for — studies themselves. Not all projects require such extensive preliminary research, but the Partners Program doesn’t pass the cost on to landowners either way.

“They have the expertise in-house,” Garrett said. “We didn’t even have to go out and hire some fancy consultant out of state or up in Portland. They came back having done some real science.”

Ultimately, the group decided to move forward with a low-tech restoration activity for the North Fork Sprague: beaver dam analogs, which down slow water and sediment, reconnect the river to its floodplain and create better fish habitat. Foresters would then remove excess fuels from the adjacent upland forest to help it better survive a future wildfire.

Johnson said the Partners Program always brings in a third-party organization, usually a nonprofit or tribe, that’s best suited to the goals of a particular project. On Harmony Preserve, Klamath Watershed Partnership performed ecological thinning and juniper removal in the uplands, while Trout Unlimited found contractors to construct the beaver dam analogs in the river. These groups, which include the Klamath Tribes, Ducks Unlimited, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nature Conservancy and others, can also help secure additional funding.

“The groups in this basin that work on restoration work really well together,” said Nell Scott, Klamath restoration director for TU, which works on the majority of its restoration projects hand-in-hand with the Partners Program. “No matter who a landowner wanted to contact to do this work, we’re all working together.”

In early summer, Garrett and Ganong signed a landowner agreement, a short document as far as government contracts are concerned. The five-to-six-page contracts outline the work that will take place on a given property and commit landowners to maintaining the restored land for a specified time period, either five or 10 years after completion. Agreements also permit biologists to return to the site a few times a year with notice to conduct monitoring and maintenance, but they don’t allow unfettered access to private property.

“If we want to visit a site, even if we’ve worked on it for 10 years, we’ll call the landowner and ask for permission before going,” Erdman said.

Finally, the agreement stipulates how much the project will cost and where the funding will come from. Landowners aren’t expected to pay much — if anything — as most of the money comes from USFWS and grants sought by the organizations and tribes they bring into the mix.

An aerial view of a Lakeside Farms field on Dec. 7, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Herald and News)

Most landowner contributions tend to be in-kind, meaning they offer their time, labor or expertise in completing part of the project.

The owners of Harmony Preserve, for example, removed some interior fencing and allowed some of their trees to be cut down for the faux beaver dams, in place of a monetary contribution. Beyond that, they never paid a cent throughout the entire process.

“If we’re doing our job well, there’s no cost to the landowner for implementing some of the restoration techniques that we use,” Erdman said.

Garrett and Ganong said another big plus of working with the Partners Program was USFWS doing all the environmental and archaeological permitting work for them, saving a lot of time and headaches.

“The beauty of it was that it was not time-intensive,” Garrett said. “It didn’t require lots of phone calls, it didn’t require a lot of meetings. It really was a straightforward exchange of emails.”

Johnson said the Service maintains close relationships with state and federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and even consults with itself where the Endangered Species Act is concerned. Additionally, he said, having permit-savvy people design these projects from the get-go can help avoid unwanted slow-downs.

“We can streamline these processes,” Johnson said. “When a landowner signs on to do this work with the Fish and Wildlife Service and these restoration groups in the basin, they are getting with it decades and decades worth of experience to make this go as smoothly as possible and be as successful as possible.”

A few months after crews installed beaver dam analogs and thinned the uplands on Harmony Preserve, Hammersmith said things are already starting to change for the better.

The site’s location, encompassing the North Fork Sprague’s first deposition area outside of the Bootleg Fire scar, will be useful in collecting excess nutrients freed up by erosion during the wet season. By spreading water over the preserve’s meadow and allowing sediments to settle out before they can flow downstream, the project hopes to indirectly improve water quality for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.

“You can see the sediments sorting already,” Hammersmith said.

Working with agriculture

Harmony Preserve may have been a dream project for all involved, but removing ranching and letting the river run completely free isn’t necessarily feasible for many landowners who want to keep their agricultural operations viable. But, in fact, the majority of Partners Program projects occur on working agricultural lands.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that we live in an agricultural community, and we understand how important that is to the basin, but we fully believe there are solutions out there that will help ranchers and farmers but can also ensure that they’re protecting the natural resources on their property,” Erdman said.

Scott said some projects simply allow ag to “peacefully coexist” with ecosystems without much of an effect on the producer. Others can directly improve farming and ranching practices, freeing up time and effort for folks working the land. Projects run the gambit from small-scale updates to irrigation infrastructure, like installing pipes or fish screens, to improving grazing practices by fencing cattle out of streams and creating stockwater wells, to removing dikes and levees and reconnecting springs.

Ecological thinning and juniper removal can help raise the local water table, and some in-stream work (when combined with a sustainable grazing plan) can reduce the need for irrigation on pastures by allowing land to hold onto water for longer.

“You can spin it as an environmental or ecological benefit, or potentially an agricultural benefit depending on how you look at it,” Garrett said.

On all properties, Scott said the landowner draws the constraints of what the restoration work can accomplish. The organizations then work collaboratively to identify actions that fit everyone’s goals. No one commits to any work until everyone is satisfied with the plan.

“We may have ecological priorities for various parts of the basin, but building that relationship with somebody really helps figure out what is appropriate for that property,” she said.

At Lakeside Farms, for example, a biologist from the wildlife refuge Partners Program designed a 70-acre treatment wetland that allows several hundred acres of farmland to be flood irrigated on the shoreline of Upper Klamath Lake, while helping the property meet state water quality requirements. Come summer, food for waterfowl will grow alongside food for humans and even a pond full of young C’waam and Koptu. Projects like Lakeside keep working lands in working hands while expanding the traditional definition of “agriculture.”

“This is very much a collaborative thing where everyone had their two cents in,” said Karl Wenner, one of Lakeside’s owners. “We really looked hard at how to make this work.”

Still, with all the funding coming to the basin, some restorationists worry that there may not be enough projects to fully make use of the money. Hammersmith said a lot of the “low-hanging fruit” has already been taken care of over the last few decades, and that the folks who own the remaining properties are more hesitant to get involved.

Johnson said that’s partially because people may not know the full scope of projects they can get funded and completed through the Partners Program and how the program itself works, but also because they may have concerns about working with the federal government. There’s a perception that Partners Program biologists are there to enforce the Endangered Species Act, but the program isn’t regulatory.

“I understand fully that there’s a history of a rocky relationship between the federal government, writ large, and some folks here on the landscape,” he said. “I think people are concerned that if they work with the Fish and Wildlife Service, they’re going to add hassle for themselves or regulation, and that’s just not the case. We’re looking to improve ecosystems and species habitat to the mutual benefit of the landowner.”

Erdman said the key is reaching out to landowners and building relationships without necessarily coming to them with a specific project idea, through face-to-face meetings on their property or sharing a meal at a local diner. Voluntary restoration only works when a landowner is excited about a project and feels comfortable with the people working on it.

Scott said she’s seen several landowners who initially had negative opinions of the feds soften up after they spent time working with local Partners staff.

“Oftentimes, once they get to know the federal employees, they realize that they’re not actually as scary as they thought they were in the beginning,” she said.

Johnson said the Partners Program is considerably well-funded in the Klamath Basin and in a great position to invest in more projects.

Thanks to appropriations from Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), they’ve funneled more than $8 million into restoration efforts since 2020. Prior to that, they had close to a million-dollar budget each year. And that’s to say nothing of the latest $162 million infusion, some of which will likely go to Partners Programs throughout the basin. And all of that money will ideally percolate through the community through the local engineers, fence builders, foresters and "human beavers" hired to work on these projects.

Local USFWS offices are working on a strategy to better connect with private landowners so they have somewhere to put the money, Johnson said.

“We are pushing hard to make that outreach once again a much, much bigger part of our game,” he said. “I would love it if money becomes a problem for us again — not because we’ve decreased funding, but because we have so much going on.”

But money or not, continued conflict over water in the basin (and all the animosity it generates) makes landowners less likely to reach out and work on restoring their properties. Without broader cooperation, restoration may not occur at the scale needed to rehabilitate species and ecosystems and achieve balance.

“Nothing would make us happier if we could do zero regulation,” Johnson said. “If the Fish and Wildlife Service could do nothing but Partners work here in the future, that would be an immense success, I think, for all of us in the basin. We’re not here to stop anybody from pursuing their livelihood. We’re here to identify ways where everyone can have some benefit.”

To landowners who have even an inkling of a desire to make their properties more sustainable part of the Klamath Basin’s ecosystems, Hammersmith said it all starts with getting in touch, even if you’re not sure of what you want to do or whether you want to do it.

“Give me a call, get me out on your property, show me what you’re thinking and we can talk about it,” he said. “Let’s build a relationship together.”

Those interested in getting involved with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program can contact the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office at 541-885-8481.

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