Technical Report

Bringing the River Back: Working with Landowners on Willamette River Restoration

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  • The Willamette River has gone through extensive changes since Euro American settlement – changes that have reduced channel connectivity, destroyed important habitat for species and vastly undermined floodwater storage capacity. Efforts to preserve portions of the river have a controversial legacy that has left lingering suspicions of government involvement in any activity that includes private lands. Nonetheless, there are opportunities for willing landowners to work with governmental and non-governmental partners to design and implement voluntary restoration projects which can provide financial and land use benefits. The river’s floodplain can be an asset and a resource beyond its usefulness for agricultural production. This report is part technical guide, part story based on interviews we conducted with different interests. We have separated out the landowners’ viewpoints and experience to make clear the importance of understanding that critical central element in restoration planning. The Harkens Lake area of the Willamette River near Monroe, Oregon, is a priority conservation area detailed in the 2002 Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas: Trajectories of Environmental and Ecological Change. The Horning families who own property in the Harkens Lake area have teamed with several partners to design and implement a restoration project as a way to, in their words, bring what was once a living area back to life as a way to give back to the river. If the potential for restoration is to be realized, landowners and their partners need to be aware of the multiple associated challenges and ways to work through them. Restoration is still new to many landowners, and projects can become complicated fairly quickly. The concept of lead project partners as case managers for landowners is critical. This approach will help landowners define their needs and expectations, develop the level of trust essential to project success, and ensure that landowners are not overwhelmed with the complexity of financing, the demands of design and permitting, and the challenge of incorporating good science. Landowners also need to know that there is a broad range of restoration programs and tools available, along with associated funding. The sweep of these programs and tools can be confusing. Though the Harken’s Lake project has not yet required permits from regulatory agencies, many stakeholders interviewed for this report identified permitting as one of the most perennially vexing parts of project implementation. It typically requires cooperation among different agencies at different levels of government, and can take from three months to three years, requiring a great deal of patience on the part of landowners and matching perseverance on the part of project partners. Finally, as the Harkens Lake story illustrates, a vital concept that may help ensure successful processes is making certain project partners and landowners discuss critical timing issues, align process steps accordingly, and develop two-way assurances that serve as accountability measures and benchmarks for progress. Those involved with the Harkens Lake restoration project expressed clear hopes: that the project will be a model for more restoration on the mainstem of the Willamette, that restoration will provide good compensation to property owners so that restoration represents a practical addition to agricultural business portfolios, and that landowners will feel good about their legacy in its benefits to the health of the river. The report should be of interest to landowners, agencies and others in the conservation community, and academics. We emphasize that it is a case study of one landowner’s experience, and the pool of associated interview participants was limited. Typical of single case studies, the experiences and outcomes cannot be generalized. There are nonetheless many elements of the study that represent long-standing landowner issues and concerns still shared by many, as indicated by the landowners and by several of the people we interviewed.
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