July 03, 2003 11:00 pm
Bill Brown ().
Bill Brown ().

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Sometimes the best land transactions are the ones never made.

For proof look no further than the almost 5,000-acre Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area, which today is a haven for waterfowl and recreational opportunities.

Fifty-four years ago, the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area was only a glimmer on the conservation horizon. Bill Brown, then a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, had been assigned by the state the responsibility of creating the wildlife area.

The state had purchased 200 acres to start the project. Brown hoped this would be the first of thousands of acres which would be purchased for Ladd Marsh.

Brown's hopes were soon dashed.

Brown was ordered by the state to sell the 200 acres.

The reasons were clear — groups were starting to voice their opposition to the project and flexing their political muscle. The groups included a state farming organization whose leaders argued that farming land would be lost.

Others objected because they did not understand Brown's intentions.

"Some people said, ‘Brown wants to build a swamp out there,' '' he said.

The members of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, then almost all first-year members, were swayed. They gave into public pressure and asked Brown to sell the 200 acres. Brown reluctantly put the land on the market. Seventeen individuals and organizations expressed interest in the property. However, none offered to purchase it.

Two years later, Brown was asked by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to keep the land.

"The commission had a lot of new members and they did not understand the importance of the project. After two years they did,'' said Brown, who served as supervisor of the ODFW's Northeast Region for 27 years before retiring in 1976.

Today the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area boosts wetlands, ponds, a nature trail, a wide abundance of wildlife and much more.

Its borders now extend south to Hot Lake Road, north to the City of La Grande sewage lagoons, west to the top of Glass Hill and east to Peach Road near Hot Lake.

One of its crown jewels is a 1,000-acre area that is being converted into wetlands through the Tule Lake Restoration Project.

The area, known as Tule Lake before it was drained many years ago, once sprawled across more than 10,000 acres on the south end of the Grande Ronde Valley.

The success of the restoration project was saluted Saturday at a dedication attended by about 100 people. The dedication saluted a project made possible by help from state, federal, city and county government agencies, and private partners.

"We are creating a vision which hopefully other counties will follow. These projects ultimately protect the heart of Oregon,'' said Russell Hoeflich, vice president and Oregon director of the Nature Conservancy.

Thomas Dwyer, conservation director for Ducks Unlimited, echoed the sentiment, describing the project as "a poster child of partnership.''

Government agencies that have played major roles in the project include the ODFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Non-government organizations that have supported the project include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, Friends of Ladd Marsh, the Oregon Hunters Association, the Grande Ronde Bird Club and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

The Tule Lake Restoration Project also has succeeded because of a unique partnership with the City of La Grande. Treated water from La Grande's waste water treatment plant is now piped to the wildlife area.

The treated water is used to develop several hundred acres of wildlife habitat. Some of the water is piped into ponds.

Another key part of the Tule Lake project involves reconstructing a portion of Ladd Creek that passes through the wildlife area. Curvature was added to the creek so that it will meander. The creek will move more slowly and cut less deeply into the channel. This keeps more water closer to the surface, making it possible for more vegetation to take root.

The area, like much of Ladd Marsh, stands in stark contrast today compared to what what it looked like 50 years ago. Then much of it was overgrazed and barren of trees.

"When you think about what we had 50 years ago, this is as close to heaven as you could get,'' said Brown, who is 88 and lives near Spokane.