WRI staff got out in the field this spring on a tour led by the Calapooia, North Santiam and South Santiam Watershed Councils. These three councils receive support as a partnership through WRI’s Willamette Model Watershed Program. They put together a great day for us, showing us projects they’ve been working on in each of the basins.
We met several farmers who partner with the councils to restore habitat on their land. Though each farmer had different reasons for getting involved, one common thread ran through their stories: restoring habitat can benefit landowners, too. Sometimes, the work eliminates non-native plants that, if left unchecked, invade cropland. Sometimes it involves building fences to help farmers keep cattle out of creeks and away from sensitive habitat. And sometimes, as one farmer pointed it out, it just looks a whole lot better.
For me, the tour underscored that there is no better way to understand the challenges of living and farming in the Willamette Basin than standing by the river with a farmer. At one site, the river was cutting a jagged line into the stream bank and resulting in a loss of valuable cropland. This is a common situation in the Willamette, where over 40% of the valley floor is used for agriculture. While the dynamic force of erosion is natural and can be beneficial to rivers in an ecosystem sense, it is an ongoing challenge for riverside property owners. Since the 1800s, the prevailing solution has been to reinforce eroding banks with piled-up rock, or ‘riprap,’ in an attempt to keep the river in place.
But water is mighty. Stabilizing the riverbank at one site often causes erosion to accelerate downstream; as the water deflects off riprap, it gains velocity. Watershed councils encourage landowners to choose plants over riprap. The ‘fuzzy edge’ provided by native trees and shrubs helps slow the river down, and the plants help stabilize the stream bank with their roots once established. On top of that, native vegetation along the stream provides a better habitat for fish and wildlife.
Later in the day, we walked through a field where a multi-generational farming family grazes livestock to find Bradshaw’s lomatium, a Willamette Valley plant that was once thought to be extinct. Bradshaw’s lomatium is still very rare, with most of its ideal habitat (seasonally flooding prairies) converted to farmland or overtaken by woodland trees and shrubs. Sarah Dyrdahl, regional projects coordinator for the councils and our tour leader, recounted her surprise and delight in finding it growing in this field in such numbers. It’s a perennial herb with tiny yellow flowers, and as a non-botantist I might have never noticed it. But there it was, all around us. How was an endangered plant thriving among cattle and sheep?
The answer was a perfect highlight to a day that was, in the end, all about relationships, adaptation and balance. By keeping the herds small and rotating them with intention, the farmer is able to achieve a sustainable, healthy field. In turn, the controlled grazing by cattle and sheep helps keep other plants from encroaching, maintaining the wet prairie environment that allows lomatium to thrive.