Watershed work aids local economy

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer June 09, 2010 12:39 pm
In Northeast Oregon and all across the state, doing good things for the environment equals doing good things for the economy.

That was the message left behind by Cassandra Moseley and Max Nielsen-Pincus when they passed through La Grande last week on their way to an Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board meeting in Baker City.

The two were headed to Baker City to report on findings of studies they’ve done on the ways watershed restoration projects — and related reforestation work — impact local businesses.

They carried some good news with them.

“Watershed restoration projects create jobs on a par with public infrastructure projects,” said Moseley, of the University of Oregon’s Ecosystem Workforce Program.

Founded in 1994, the Ecosystem Workforce Program supports sustainable rural development. Moseley is its director, Nielsen-Pincus a faculty member.

The program produced three recent studies for the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. Among other findings, the studies show that every million dollars of public investment in restoration projects supports about 17 jobs in Oregon.

The studies also say that 90 percent of money spent on watershed and reforestation projects stays in the state, and 60 percent stays in the counties where work is done.

“We’ve learned that most of the work and money stays local,” said Nielsen-Pincus.

In Union County, many such projects are initiated through the non-profit Grande Ronde Model Watershed, which gets a lion’s share of its funding through the Bonneville Power Administration.

Executive Director Jeff Oveson said he knows without doubt that the money spent by his organization benefits the local economy.

“We have yet to hire a local contractor from out of the area,” he said.

Grande Ronde Model Watershed spends in excess of $1 million a year on local projects, according to Oveson.

“We’re just happy to be able to contribute to the local economy,” he said.

One recent example of a project is restoration of End Creek in north Union County, which GRMW did in partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“That was an 800 acre involving three landowners, and we had about $200,000 in it,” Oveson said, noting that Partney Construction, a La Grande company, was the lead contractor.

Also recently, Mike Becker General Contractor of Union County was the lead in the construction of a fish ladder along Catherine Creek.

Anderson-Perry & Associates, a local engineering firm, designed the project. The ladder will improve passage conditions for salmon.

Oveson said that two other fish passage projects planned for next year will cost about $1.5 million.

In their report to the watershed enhancement board, Moseley and Nielsen-Pincus held up a $550,000 Wallowa River restoration project in Wallowa County as a shining example of a local work creating local income.

On the 6 Ranch owned by Craig and Liza Nichols, a straight, fast-flowing stretch of river was restored to include bends, pools, boulders and other natural habitat.

Local contractor L.D. Perry hired a three-person crew that worked nearly full time for three months. Anderson-Perry did the design work, and supplies, including fuel, materials and rock, were purchased locally. Grande Ronde Model Watershed was the lead agency.

“The project will improve water quality, and it also helps the economy,” Moseley said.

Study reports published by the UO forecast that President Obama’s back-to-work emphasis on public infrastructure projects will stimulate forest and watershed restoration.

Federal and state agencies, looking to build on long-standing efforts to improve the environment, will continue to fund projects.

Grant money goes to organizations like Grande Ronde Model Watershed, Wallowa Resources in Wallowa County, soil and water conservation districts and other agencies with a stake in improving habitat.

Funding sources are many, and include Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and more.

In the end, a good deal of the money finds its way to small contractors. In Oregon, two-thirds of the businesses contracting for reforestation and watershed enhancement work earn less than $1 million a year.

“One thing we’ve looked at is who these companies are. They are family-owned small businesses,” Moseley said.