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NRCS Helps Restore Family Property with WRP Easement

Born in Tacoma, Wash., Thomas [Tom] Nelson remembers spending his summers at his parents’ cabin in Swan Valley, Mont.  “My mom would load us all up in the car or on the train and head over,” Tom said.  He recalls how excited he was to hear his mom say, ‘go play!’ 

“And, boy did we,” he said.  “We would pull some nice fish out of the beaver pond on Barber Creek for breakfast and just run freely. That was exciting for city kids.”

Tom, on the right, with brother Lindy cleaning a fish caught from the beaver pond on Barber Creek.
Tom, on the right, with brother Lindy cleaning a fish caught from the beaver pond on Barber Creek. Photo courtesy of Tom Nelson.
Tom Nelson’s daughter, Julie, shows off her catch from the beaver dam at Barber Creek in 1981.
Tom Nelson’s daughter, Julie, shows off her catch from the beaver dam at Barber Creek in 1981. Photo courtesy of Tom Nelson.

But years later, the things that Tom remembered most about Barber Creek and the beaver dam in Montana would become just that—a memory. “That creek and pond haven’t been too productive lately,” Tom said.  “A lot of the willows that shaded the creek are gone, the water is flowing more slowly, and we can’t fish in the beaver pond like we used to.”

The days of fishing and bathing in the nearby creek are gone, and now he, his family and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are working to restore the property back to its natural beauty.

Carl and Minnie Nelson bought the property in 1929.  When Minnie passed in 1984, the family formed Circle 7N Ranch, Inc.—consisting of Carl and Minnie’s seven children. Now, there are three original shareholders and nine grandchildren who hold shares in property.

Every year, the shareholders hold an annual meeting to make decisions about managing the land.  About 9 years ago, they were “getting low on funds and looking at ways to get some funds into the property,” said Leigh Nelson, Carl and Minnie’s grandson and the NRCS state irrigation engineer in Washington.  That’s when Leigh brought to his family’s attention the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), a voluntary conservation program that offers landowners the means to restore, enhance, and protect wetlands on their property through easements.

“I knew the land had been disturbed in the '70s when we dug a drainage ditch along the creek so they could log it,” Leigh said.  “So I thought, ‘maybe we could put it into WRP’.”

Soon after, he got to work.  His first job:  sell the idea of working with the government to the shareholders who were leery.

“It wasn’t a slam-dunk,” Leigh said.  However, the majority voted to apply for the WRP.

Shareholders of the Circle 7N Ranch, Inc., submitted their first application in 2005, but were not selected for the program. They later applied again and were approved—agreeing to place 22 of their 135 acres into a WRP easement. In 2012, NRCS started the restoration.  The agency paid to dig out a shallow water area for wildlife and restored the wetlands by filling in the drain ditch. 

The shallow water area is at Circle 7N before construction began in 2012.  The Circle 7N Ranch, Inc.

The shallow water area is at Circle 7N before construction began in 2012.  The Circle 7N Ranch, Inc. has a Wetlands Reserve Program easement on 22 acres.  The property is located in Swan Valley, Mont.

Shallow water area one year after construction began.
Shallow water area one year after construction began.

“It has opened the door for us with NRCS in Missoula,” Leigh said.  He said NRCS is working on a conservation plan that will determine the condition of other parts of the property they are thinking of logging. 

“I am going to take this plan to the other shareholders, and we can see if it’s [the property] feasible to log.”

Leigh will present the conservation plan at the family’s next meeting in June 2014.  He’s hopeful that the work his family has done with NRCS will be a model for other landowners in the area.Barber creek floodplain wetlands on the Circle 7N WRP.

“There’s not a lot of other government activity up there, except for the Forest Service,” he said.  “I hope [NRCS] can get more WRP sites in the valley.  [And this] is a good visual site to do that.”

As for Tom, he just wants the land to return to how he remembered it as a child. 

“Hopefully, we will see the return of additional wildlife in the near future,” he said. “If the grandchildren and great grandchildren can enjoy fishing in the creek and beaver dams as a result of the WRP, boy, that will be great.”

And according to Leigh, the land is headed that way. “We’re seeing more wildlife back in there,” he said.  “It’s a nicer looking place than it was, for sure.”