Protecting the McKenzie River from death by 1,000 cuts

Joe Moll, Executive Director of McKenzie River Trust is working hard to prevent us from loving our homewaters to death. Find out more about the threats to the McKenzie River watershed and what our local land trust is doing about them in this Q&A:

How is a land trust different from a traditional conservation group?
Joe Moll: Most people are familiar with The Nature Conservancy — 60 years ago, ecologists noticed the wild places where they did their research, the places they loved, were being developed. They said we need to stop this somehow. The land trust movement in the United States is private people that came together with a preservation mentality. We love this block of woods, let’s buy up and protect it. So now you have over 1500 land trusts around the country, and some of them have only one preserve.

We bring money and tax incentives to the table and people are willing to put restrictions on their land. We either acquire land, like we have at Green Island, where we hold it and manage it. Or we acquire a conservation easement, which is a restriction on development. The easements can be as unique as the land or the values you want to protect. For our river areas, protection of riparian areas is one goal, the interface between the land and water. This is where people have more opportunity to protect land because it’s not easy to develop anyway. But hey still do it in Lane County, and that’s one of my biggest frustrations. Despite land use codes which should restrict what happens on the river, it doesn’t always do it. Our role is to get in on opportunities to work with landowners to put on a different layer of protection.

We don’t go around throwing out lawsuits. If we see an organization like a timber company or developer that wants to do something on the river, we try to work with them and say ‘Hey, is there any incentive we can bring to the table to get you to back away from the river and let the flood plain be the flood plain?’

What is it about the McKenzie River that’s stood out to you as being significant?
Moll: It’s hard to deny the geology. It’s such a unique river in how it bubbles out of the ground and builds out of the Cascades and volcanic soils, snowmelt. What’s really struck me since moving here is talking to the researchers that said in the old days, pre-dam, the McKenzie’s flow in the summer provided 40-50% of the flow of the Willamette. That steady flow, it’s not a flashy system, is something unique. You can see it in the clarity and coldness of the water, what it supports.

Conservation groups do a lot of work in the lower watershed, we do a lot of work in the upper watershed, but the criticism I’ve gotten is that how much good is any of that going to do if the spawning habitat and rearing habitat are separated by dams?
Moll: That is a multimillion dollar question. And maybe quite honestly, we are fooling ourselves to some degree. We’re spending a lot of money helping fish get back and forth with great risk. Like a lot of things, we’re managing fish and wildlife populations right on the margin. We aren’t giving that wildlife much room for error, for natural occurring disasters. Historically in these systems, if one stream gets plugged up because of a natural slide, a fish could move somewhere else. But it’s not that easy anymore.

As a biologist, that’s not my bailiwick, but I think it’s always worth asking those questions. Are we really losing site of the bigger picture?

Are there any better fish migration mitigation options on the horizon? Any opportunities you see to improve this issue?
Moll: I’ve really been impressed with what the Army Corps of Engineers has started to do in the last five to ten years. They’ve started working with biologists to look at the manipulation of the dams to at least more closely mimic historic flows. Instead of looking at just recreation and flood protection, the Corps is recognizing that they have some leeway to manipulate the flows to mimic spring freshets or fall rain. You could still argue that it’s not having much of an effect, but it’s a sea change in terms of what the Corps as an agency is willing to consider.

Those changes in the agencies to consider questions they hadn’t considered before, I take a lot of heart in that. I’ve been accused of being a Pollyanna sometimes, but in this line of work you have to be I think. You butt your head against so many concrete dams, you cheer the little victories that you get.

How do you characterize the Trust’s role with ODFW and other wildlife agencies?
Moll: They’re certainly more subject to politics then we are — the politics of the legislature and federal and state funding. I think that they look to us to open the door to willing landowners. The land trust approach, which is to work with anybody as long and land and water management is at the table, allows the agencies to practice their trade with less politics involved. If we can secure land and protect it in some way, it will at least stop the killer threats — concrete, subdivisions, things that are really hard to reverse over time that have long term cumulative impacts.

What’s your assessment on the general health of the McKenzie River?
Moll: I think it’s threatened. Absolutely, it’s a beautiful river. It’s got great water quality as it comes out of the ground, but as soon as it starts heading downstream it’s a death from a thousand cuts. The irony is we love our rivers to death. We want our houses to be near them. We want our hospitals to be near them, because it really does help heal people to be in natural areas. So it’s a Catch 22. The more you spend time close to or in a river, the greater chance you’re going to muck it up.

You can see it as you come downstream, the river gets forced into a narrower channel, you get development right up to the edge. More and more people are putting more things into the river. I know EWEB is doing some work on water quality. People around the country are finding Prozac and Viagra showing up in our fish. It sounds kind of funny, but that’s the scale of the impact we’re having on our rivers. I think people have thought, because of the unique hydrology of the McKenzie, it wouldn’t have the problems that other rivers would. But if these climate change projections come to pass, it’s going to change like other rivers will as well. I think that it’s a race between development pressure on the river versus a growing awareness that this is our drinking water, this is where fish and wildlife live. This is something very close to all the people in Springfield and Eugene.

What is the biggest threat to the river?
Moll: People look at the river during summer flows, they see a band of water moving, and they think that that’s the river. But all you have to do is go out this time of year and see it even at moderate flows, starting to get back into its flood plain, and people forget very quickly how quickly the river can change course and therefore, how important that channel meander zone, how important that wider floodplain is. You don’t have that recognition, that what you see on that July day isn’t the river. The river the next July could be a quarter mile away on a different meander. If you don’t recognize that, you’ll say it’s OK to build here. And that’s what allows the death of a thousand cuts.

For more on McKenzie River Trust’s work at Green Island, check out the efforts from our McKenzie Two-Fly Tournament.

This entry was posted in Fly Fishing Profiles, McKenzie River, Oregon Conservation News. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Protecting the McKenzie River from death by 1,000 cuts

  1. darlene finch says:

    My nephew, Bart Faulkner, of EPA in Oklahoma, has been working with Joe Mall on this project and is very excited about it. A great plan!

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