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Wheeler County Partners Restoring Creeks to Peaks, Boosting Rural Economy

Wheeler County Partners Restoring Creeks to Peaks, Boosting Rural Economy

Using a ridgetop-to-ridgetop approach, private landowners and conservation partners are maximizing water availability across the landscape to benefit people, agriculture, fish and wildlife, and the local economy.

The North Slope Ochoco Holistic Restoration Project was made possible through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). RCPP brings together public, private and Tribal partners to leverage shared funding and resources to achieve landscape-scale conservation.

View the interactive story map.

Conservation and Economics a Win-Win

Wheeler County is home to one of the “Seven Wonders of Oregon”—the Painted Hills. These colorful, fossil-rich landforms attract thousands of visitors every year from all over the world.

Most private landowners in the county manage rangelands and forestlands adjacent to federal lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service.

Considering the small population, federal conservation dollars being spent in Wheeler County make a significant impact on the local economy. In fact, the recent North Slope Ochoco Holistic Restoration Project added a combined $11 million in conservation funding to the county from a variety of local, state, federal and tribal partners.

Through RCPP, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) invested $4.1 million into the five-year project. Based on an NRCS economic impact analysis, that funding created or sustained 58 jobs and generated $3.9 million in additional regional economic activity in Wheeler County.

Regional economic activity captures all types of spending that people will do as a result of NRCS’ investments in that regional economy. That can include expenditures such as purchasing supplies, equipment and labor, as well as subsequent spending by the community, such as trips to the grocery store and restaurants. For a small population, those dollars make a big impact.

“This project has demonstrated that conservation creates and sustains jobs and brings economic activity to communities,” said Damon Brosnan, NRCS District Conservationist. It’s a win-win for people and for the land.”

Partners Make it Happen

Conservation partners such as the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, the Wheeler Soil and Water Conservation District, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife contributed a combined $7 million in funding and shared technical expertise.

“What’s amazing about this project is the comprehensiveness of it,” said Terry Long, a ranch owner participating in the project (pictured). “We work with Wheeler SWCD, OWEB, NRCS, ODFW and the Tribe…all of these agencies are trying to solve the same problem. It’s a lot easier for us to get the agencies working together to accomplish more on the ground.”

“They have been so easy to work with from a landowner standpoint,” Terry added. “We couldn’t ask for a better group of partners to get conservation on the land.”

Maximizing Every Last Drop of Water

The primary focus of the project is keeping more water in stream for endangered steelhead and other aquatic species. But the work didn’t take place solely in the streams. Partners used a strategic approach to tackle water conservation from all the way from the creek beds to the upland areas to the ridgetops.

Conservation treatments on the ridgetops and upland areas primarily focused on removing invasive Western juniper.

Junipers are thirsty trees; the average juniper tree consumes about 30 gallons or more of water per day. By removing these trees in priority areas along the north facing slope, it allows groundwater to recharge natural springs instead of being consumed by juniper trees.

Removing juniper also promotes the growth of deer-friendly plants like bitterbrush, because it no longer gets outcompeted by juniper.

Landowners participating in the project are impressed by the results.

“I was amazed at the difference in just one year after cutting the juniper,” said Matt Smith (pictured), co-owner and managing partner of Cherry Creek Ranch.

“Removing the juniper has really opened up the ground and we are seeing more growth in bitter brush and other species that are beneficial to deer habitat.”

“We’ve also seen more water flowing from springs after taking out the juniper,” he added.

Man-Made Beaver Dams Recharge Nature's Sponge

The in-stream work primarily focused on installing Beaver Dam Analogs (BDAs), man-made structures that mimic a natural beaver dam. These dams help slow the flow of water so that moisture can be absorbed into the ground and promote the growth of healthy vegetation around the creeks.

“The BDAs provide continuity of habitat for beaver colonies,” said Herb Winters, Conservation Specialist with the Wheeler SWCD. “These structures add complexity to re-engage sites and cover the entire floodplain in water. They allow the ground to act like a sponge to absorb water and extend summer flows.”

In many cases, project partners install BDAs in streams that are already protected through FSA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). CREP sites are typically planted with native trees and shrubs along the stream sides to provide shade and habitat and are fenced off to keep cattle out.

“Because of the Beaver Dam Analog, we have water up the creek where we’ve never had water before,” Terry said. “These projects are very beneficial to the land and for wildlife.”

Private landowners like Terry are seeing dramatic results after installing BDAs.

“Fifteen years ago this creek had no shade, no riparian habitat, nothing,” Terry said about a stretch of drainage along Bear Creek on his property. “Now with the BDA, there is water in places it hasn’t been before, and there’s shade and vegetation. There’s now water coming down a stream into Bear Creek for the first time in years.”

The BDAs are a relatively new conservation practice in Oregon. They were made possible with funding from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

“I would say 85 to 90 percent of what we’ve done out here has produced really successful results,” Terry said. “So now when Herb comes to me with another idea to try, we’re up for just about anything,” he said.

On-Farm Improvements Conserve Water and Energy

Another important part of the project addresses on-farm water sources to maximize water delivery for agriculture. Participating farmers and ranchers have installed efficient irrigation systems, spring developments and livestock watering facilities that bring water to the right place at the right time to maximize water use efficiency.

Conservation by the Numbers

Through the North Slope Ochoco Holistic Restoration Project, Wheeler County landowners and partners have improved water quality and quantity, restored fish and wildlife habitat, and improved rangeland and forest health across the north-facing slope in three adjacent watersheds in the John Day Basin.

Specifically, those three watersheds are Mountain Creek, Bridge Creek, and Cherry Creek. These watersheds comprise 345,298 acres, and 66 percent of that land is privately-owned. The project area contains 65 percent rangeland, 30 percent dense forested stands, and 5 percent irrigated cropland.

Below is a summary of the various conservation practices and agency programs that have culminated to achieve results across the landscape:

What's Next - Continuing the Legacy of Conservation

Wheeler County landowners and conservation partners care deeply about protecting the natural landscapes, productive rangelands, and diverse natural resources in this treasured part of Eastern Oregon. Their dedication to conservation has resulted in a highly successful project that serves as a model for effective partnerships, and they plan to continue that work into the future to build upon those results.