By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
As you wade through high grasses and wildflowers along the creek bank on a summer morning, it's hard to imagine that this stream is only one year old.
Milk Creek is really much older, but during modern times and until a year ago, it flowed as an open ditch along Highway 203 a few miles from Catherine Creek State Park.
In an ambitious project, several agencies brought together engineering and environmental expertise to create a meandering creek bordered by grasses and wildflowers and flowing through a meadow on Oregon State University's experimental Hall Ranch.
The fish are returning. Several adult and juvenile steelhead have been spotted and at least two redds (nests) have been seen. Rick Wagner, project manager from the Oregon Department of Forestry, said earlier this year he discovered a "big adult" upstream from the project.
The new stream bed on the Hall Ranch has caught the attention of a private landowner whose property lies upstream from the ranch. With the upstream landowner's improvement of his reach, the creek will be restored by next summer from the headwaters to the confluence with Catherine Creek.
Such riparian projects are funded in Union and Wallowa counties from federal and state grants administered by the Grande Ronde Model Watershed, a 10-year-old organization of landowners, conservationists and public officials who bring together diverse perspectives about the Grande Ronde River Basin.
Several miles away from Milk Creek, on Mark Tipperman's 2,500-acre property in the Meadow Creek watershed, agencies will complete a stream restoration project begun several years ago with the cooperation of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and other environmental agencies.
This summer, in preparation for opening a new meandering channel of McCoy Creek, ODFW trapped fish from the "old" creek channel and released them in Meadow Creak and upstream on McCoy.
Tipperman said the project was a 70 percent-25 percent cost share, with him paying 25 percent, but he has listed his property under the federal wetlands reserve program, which provides funding in exchange for the landowner reclaiming and conserving wetlands.
"When we bought the property, we didn't think about relocating the creek," Tipperman said. "We assumed with fencing, the riparian area would recover, but we learned that would be a long, long recovery, if ever."
McCoy and other creeks within the Meadow Creek Watershed are gradually returning to their natural state, attracting fish and other wildlife.
Riparian restoration projects within the Grande Ronde and Wallowa valleys are almost routine today, but only 10 years ago, ranchers, landowners, conservationists and county officials had a difficult time coming together in agreement on projects.
Union County Commissioner John Howard and former Wallowa County Commissioner Pat Wortman were the driving forces behind the founding of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed.
Steve McClure, another Union County commissioner, recalls the Herculean efforts of the core group.
"There were days when that group could not agree on anything, except to meet again," McClure said. "I remember saying to John, Â‘You might as well give up. This isn't going to work.'"
Although Howard prefers to talk about watershed successes, he agreed that, "It was hard in the beginning."
"There was the trust factor," he said. "Both sides Â— some thought we weren't moving fast enough; others thought we were moving too fast. The goal was to bring people together."
John Harrison of the power planning council agreed that progress in the early days came at a snail's pace.
"It's a slow and difficult process," he said about riparian restoration. "It affects lives and livelihoods. People like Pat Wortman were dedicated to making this thing a success and didn't give up in the face of landowners who were simply distrustful of government.
"This was the right thing to do: Improve habitat while improving the local economy. Very difficult."
The Grande Ronde organization came into existence following a 1980 directive from Congress to protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitat. The Northwest Power Planning Council was given the authority to "repair the damage done by the dams" in the Columbia River Basin, Harrison said.
Watershed planning councils were formed, with the Grande Ronde as one of the first models. Patty Perry was hired as the first director. Her work and that of current director Jeff Oveson received praise.
"The Grande Ronde Model Watershed is kind of the model of the models," said Joe DeHerrera of the Bonneville Power Administration. "They're probably the largest, the most thorough and seem to do an excellent job."
Since the Grande Ronde organization developed, many other watershed councils have been created throughout the Columbia Basin.
The instream and streamside projects take place on private and public property, and the U.S. Forest Service takes a substantial share of riparian restoration dollars.
But private landowners are important, too, and like the Tipperman ranch, the Cunha ranch has participated in major riparian projects, especially along the Grande Ronde River.
Each fall, the model watershed board rates and awards federal and state dollars to riparian projects. Among the approximately 14 programs funded for the current year is one that will install solar powered water pumps to provide drinking water containers for cattle on Bill White's Catherine Creek ranch.
Howard said one of his goals was to involve the counties' private landowners.
"We wanted to be proactive, rather than reactive," he said. "There was quite a bit of coaching going on Â— a lot of sideline work. By the second year the group began to jell."