Planting Trees for a Healthy Future

two volunteers planting trees

Trees and more trees, along with grasses and shrubs — all native Oregon plants — are key to ensuring a healthy future for the rivers in the South Willamette Valley. And in turn, that means a healthy future for all of us. The floodplain forest on Green Island, near the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers, is a major restoration project managed by the McKenzie River Trust. It’s supported by hard working volunteers and generous donors like you. This winter, we added over two hundred thousand new stems to the forest there.

Volunteers on the ground

A young volunteer plants a tree on Green Island.
A young volunteer plants a tree on Green Island. Photo by Elizabeth Goward.

To kick off February, volunteers put on their boots and rolled up their sleeves to plant 5,000 bare-root trees and shrubs over several days on the south end of Green Island. These plantings continue the efforts throughout the past winter to re-vegetate areas impacted by construction that re-connected an alcove of the main stem of the Willamette to an historic McKenzie channel. Next, MRT staff planted the remainder of the trees and shrubs, including potting about 1,000 plants for future volunteer events.

In addition to the work in the south, contractors planted over 260,000 trees and shrubs over the winter on the north end of the property. Since 2006, MRT has restored hundreds of acres of floodplain forest or riparian habitat. In all, we’ve planted more than half a million native trees and shrubs on Green Island. Many more are yet to come.

Because of strong member support over many years, these trees will grow to become a gallery forest and provide refuge for birds, bugs, frogs, beavers, and all the creatures that visit and live on this land.

Focused investment, big results

The project is part of the Willamette Focused Investment Partnership. This basin-wide effort helps restore the Willamette River from its headwaters to its mouth at the Columbia. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Bonneville Power Administration, and Meyer Memorial Trust’s Willamette River Initiative provide the major institutional support and grant funding. The collective effort includes coordinated work by land trusts, watershed councils, riverkeepers, universities, and friends groups.

volunteer tree planting crew
A volunteer crew from February 2018 helped Restoration Projects Manager Christer LaBrecque plant thousands of native trees on Green Island. Photo by Elizabeth Goward.

Back on Green Island, MRT’s Restoration Projects Manager Christer LaBrecque leads the restoration efforts. In February, he planted a variety of native species close to the river, including cottonwood, ash, honeysuckle, and willow. “We encircled the plants with large pods of bark or leaves to help mulch the growing vegetation,” LaBrecque says. Planting in the pods can increase the density of the plants. “Over time, they will spread between the pods. Then, we will plant additional native grasses to fill in the area.”

Volunteers came from all walks of life to help with the planting. They dedicated a significant portion of their days to the work. All expressed their dedication to conservation and their desire to see the environment protected for future generations, which is a common theme for all of you who help us carry out this work.

MRT Executive Director Joe Moll put the restoration efforts on Green Island in perspective. “For most of us in the area, you don’t think too much about the river,” he said. “You don’t have a chance to realize that every time you pour a glass of water or take a shower or drink a beer or a glass of wine, that’s the river, that’s the river itself.”

Learn more & get involved:

Invisible Rivers

In 2009, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board provided support for McKenzie River Trust to create this poster about the function and value of hyporheic zones in rivers. Hyporheic zones are river flows under and adjacent to river channels where riverwater and groundwater meet. When we protect floodplain lands like Green Island, Finn Rock, and Waite Ranch we are ensuring these hyporheic zones remain intact and healthy, providing numerous benefits for ecosystems and people.

Click the image to view full size.
Poster design by Ryan Ruggiero, MRT Land Protection Manager from 2008-2014

Green Island: A Floodplain In Restoration

A pond restoration project on Green Island brought heavy equipment to re-contour a pond on site this summer. Photo by Christer LaBrecque.
It was nearly impossible to have a conversation over the noise of the bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks. Earlier this month on Green Island, where the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers come together, over twelve thousand cubic yards of soil were being transported.

The McKenzie River Trust acquired 865 acres of Green Island in 2003, recognizing that such extensive acreage, river channels, and off-channel areas provided tremendous opportunities to implement conservation strategies that had been developed by many partner organizations working in the Upper Willamette Basin.

An aerial view of dozens of logs and pieces of large wood used to harden the outlet of a pond that has now become an alcove on Green Island. Alcoves like this are more friendly to native fish and the other floodplain species that rely on them. Photo by Christer LaBrecque.
As MRT and our partners have gotten to know the area better over the last 14 years of management and restoration efforts, the foresight of that initial acquisition and subsequent additions to the property has become increasingly apparent. The Green Island project, presently about 1,100 acres in size, gives us the chance to move beyond talking, and walk the talk of large-scale floodplain restoration.

Transforming a pond, restoring a river

With the support of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Bonneville Power Administration, and a Pacific General Electric Habitat Support grant administered through The Nature Conservancy, we took one more step this summer to increase river-floodplain hydrologic connection and improve habitat quality.

Contractors used heavy equipment to remove a 350 foot by 150 foot levee, originally constructed to make the land more suitable to farming. An existing pond wall was opened, transforming the pond into an alcove that should connect to the floodplain in high water, spreading the river over about 3 acres that was previously inaccessible.

The next step will be to stabilize the site with native grass seedlings. Later this winter, we’ll plant cottonwoods and willows to restore the site.

As the noise of the bulldozers fade, and the calls of birds can be heard again, a conversation will continue: a conversation between the land and the rivers that cradle it.

Come see it for yourself

Want to learn more about restoration efforts on Green Island? Join us for the upcoming tour on August 26th with Christer LaBrecque, MRT’s Restoration Projects Manager, to see first-hand how Green Island is being restored! Register HERE.

To see the floodplain restoration happening across 1,100 acres on Green Island, join us for a free tour on Saturday, August 26. Learn more and register here. Photo by Christer LaBrecque.

Surprises in the Ponds

Volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Goward looks for signs of turtle nests at Finn Rock Reach.

Before you can even see them, the turtles know you’re there. As you walk towards the ponds, you hear soft plops and see rings in the water. Western pond and western painted turtles escape quickly into the water from their sunbathing perches. Once they realize you are not a predator, they cautiously stick their heads out of the water and slowly climb back onto the logs and rocks that dot the surface of the ponds at Finn Rock Reach.

During the warm months, these native Oregon species spend their days basking on logs, rocks, and even floating plants. As spring turns into summer, adult female turtles begin to lay their eggs in nests in the ground. They cover them with dirt, and the eggs are warmed by the summer sun. With luck, by the time the salmon return to their spawning grounds in nearby Elk Creek, a few of the new crop of hatchlings will crawl out and slip quietly into the ponds with their parents. The rest will emerge the following spring.

Western Pond and Western Painted Turtles bask at Finn Rock Reach near the McKenzie River.

Home Waters for Rare Turtles

Both of the turtle species found at Finn Rock Reach are rare in the Willamette Valley. Luckily, this area contains some of the most diverse habitat of the upper McKenzie River. In addition to providing a home for western pond and western painted turtles, Finn Rock is home to Chinook salmon and other native fishes including stickleback; elk; beaver; otter; mink; a wide variety of dragonflies, damselflies, and butterflies; and more.

Turtles need specific characteristics in their habitat, both in water and on land. Western pond turtles are usually found in ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. Western painted turtles prefer slow moving, shallow water, like streams, canals, sloughs, and ponds. Both nest on land, typically close to the water. The ponds at Finn Rock have a very stable water level, which makes it easy for turtles to find nesting sites that will stay dry during the winter.

To research turtles at the ponds, we look for dug up nests (the scientific term is depredated) like this one.

One of our goals is to make Finn Rock Reach the best possible habitat for all species. The 278-acre property was purchased by McKenzie River Trust in 2015/16 and includes 2 miles of river frontage. The former landowner, Rosboro timber company, built the ponds so that they could gather gravel to construct roads across their network of lands in the McKenzie basin. Nobody suspected that these man-made ponds would attract such sensitive turtle species.

Learning More, Day by Day

To find out how our turtles are using the area, our stewardship interns are making regular visits to the ponds. They’re observing how the turtles are currently using the ponds by watching basking behaviors, taking count of each species, and mapping their nests. The information gathered from this research will help inform our management plan for the property.

The next step is restoration to help improve the habitat. Restoration will likely include re-grading the banks of the ponds and planting them with natural vegetation to improve nesting and rearing areas. It will also likely include making the area less conducive to invasive species, and creating better basking spots.

Balancing Needs for Turtles and Salmon

Stewardship intern Peter Cooper and volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Goward look for signs of turtles in the ponds. Learning more about the turtles will help us plan for restoration at Finn Rock Reach.

Before the ponds were created, this area was a natural floodplain. During the winter and larger flood events, the river would expand on to the floodplain, creating lots of side channels. These slow moving waters are the perfect habitat for young salmon, which aren’t yet strong enough to take on the fast flowing river. Today, though, the high, steep edges of the ponds prevent the river from making these connections and creating side channels.

The challenge we now face is how to restore floodplain habitat for juvenile salmon, while still keeping the ponds and dry nesting habitat for our native turtle species. One possibility is to turn part of the pond area back into floodplain, while keeping a section as ponds for turtle habitat. Fortunately, turtles are smart creatures, and they will be able to utilize the remaining nesting areas.

What You Can Do

It’s important to protect these habitats as our population expands and demands on the McKenzie River grow.

At McKenzie River Trust, we are working hard to do our part to help make Finn Rock an even better habitat for native species. In April, we launched the McKenzie Homewaters Campaign, a $6 million community effort to protect, restore, and care for Finn Rock Reach, and to expand our conservation footprint up and downstream. To date, over 200 people like you have contributed, bringing us to more than 2/3 of our goal.

If you’re interested in seeing the turtles and exploring Finn Rock Reach, please join us on one of our tours and let us know that you want to learn more. We would be happy to sit down or walk the land with you to introduce you to the projects at Finn Rock and elsewhere in the watershed.

Join us for an upcoming tour

A visitor takes notes during a recent tour of Finn Rock Reach. Photo by Holly McRae.

About the author

Harper Johnson is an outreach intern with McKenzie River Trust. Harper is a junior at Williams College in Massachusetts, double majoring in Psychology and Economics. She grew up in Eugene and spent many summers enjoying the McKenzie River and other wild areas throughout Oregon. She most recently did research on the Colorado River Delta as an intern at an organization dedicated to protecting special places in Baja California and is excited for the opportunity to work at a similar organization in her hometown. She is interested in outreach and communications and is excited to have the chance to explore this at a land trust and gain valuable experience throughout the summer.

Oregon chub makes a comeback

Because of members like you, an Oregon native makes a comeback

It was the early 1990s. Like many of our native fishes, the Oregon chub was in trouble.

Chub lived their lives in the moist backwater channels and sloughs of the Willamette Valley’s lush rivers and streams. But those streams had fewer and fewer rich habitat areas for the chub to thrive. Braided rivers with plentiful meanders, oxbows, and diverse floodplains that had once blanketed the Willamette Valley were now largely developed or cut off from the river.

In 1993, with only 1,000 known Oregon chub remaining, the fish was listed as endangered.

This was the start of a huge group effort to recover Oregon chub, a native species that went from imperiled to healthy in just 22 years.

Member stories

Together with our members, MRT has played an important part in the comeback of Oregon chub. Because of support from people like you, we’ve protected places for chub to grow and thrive, six places on the Lower McKenzie River.

In the coming days and weeks, we’ll share a few stories of MRT members who aided the recovery.

George Grier and Cynthia Pappas
Art and Anita Johnson
Gail and Eric Haws

 

Places our members have helped protect

Reflections on Green Island

Your experiences at the 2015 Living River Celebration

By Eric Alan, McKenzie River Trust member

People’s experiences of the McKenzie River Trust’s annual Living River Celebration on Green Island make it clear that the river there is not just water: it’s a river of life, emotion, experience and connection.

We gathered attendees’ thoughts about the land and the event, and the diversity of answers is illuminating and beautiful.

Surprises intertwined with the intrigue

We asked in terms of discovery, first and foremost. What were you surprised by? What was most interesting to you? What had you never noticed before that day?

Peaks of interest varied from the shifts in the restored river channel, to the surprise meeting of an old acquaintance. The living and free birds drew passionate attention; so did an animal pelts exhibit, and evidence of beaver along the river. For one, the most exciting sight was a snake; for another, the chance to climb a tree. For a many it was simply everything — the beauty of it all.

Surprises intertwined with the intrigue. Unexpected giant tadpoles. Warm morning clouds, which briefly let loose rain. The vast numbers of attendees, the wide range of planned activities, an unplanned connection with a friend. A doe, a riverbank, the growth of poplars, the sheer magnitude of Green Island’s acres.

And what did people newly notice? The sheer amount of restoration work done. The hiking trails. Beaver teeth. The way a dragonfly lands on prairie grass. How waste can be recycled through forests. Plantings done in rows, for weed control and irrigation. That urban runoff can add more pesticides to the environment than agriculture. The time, money and effort needed for restoration; yet the sheer number of other conservation projects nearby. The confluence of the rivers, and how it felt to swim in them.

Lasting impressions

Living River experiences and the emotions instilled by them left lasting impressions. We asked, how did you feel after visiting? Answers included: More connected. Relaxed. Delighted, inspired, sunburned. (It was an unusually hot day.) Energized, positive, rejuvenated. Refreshed, more knowledgeable, reassured that there is hope. Even more clear that MRT is a great organization.

We also asked what inspired people to visit, as 900 did. For a few, it was because they’d been before; for others, because they hadn’t. The kayaking opportunities called someone, and in contrast, one had previously only paddled through. One was new to Eugene. Another came because of a friend’s suggestion on Facebook. Curiosity, nature, support of local land conservation—these reasons and more brought people together.

What would attendees tell their friends who were elsewhere this year? What a gem the land is, how much others missed by not attending. How great it is to learn about the world of which we’re all a part. How much can be accomplished successfully in restoration. Mark your calendars for next year, someone said. Take a walk, visit when you paddle by. All fine suggestions.

Your visions for Green Island’s future

In the beauty of the moment, we asked for visions of the future. What will it feel like, to see Green Island’s continued shifts by next year? Superlatives flowed in. Exciting, gratifying, uplifting, fascinating, inspiring.

And in fifty years, what were visitors’ visions for Green Island and MRT? Many envisioned the continuance and growth of restoration work at Green Island. One had a vision of its riparian area so well restored that its previous life as a farm would be invisible. Some saw Green Island as a model for other restoration projects, with MRT thriving, growing, recognized as an example of what combined efforts can do for a natural resource. One envisioned more programs for kids, on a land opened up more often for visitation. Another, thriving salmon runs in the rivers running by. Many saw inspiration for others elsewhere, and viewed Green Island as a showplace for conservation opportunities on lands private and public.

We share our attendees’ visions and their inspirational excitement. With gratitude for everyone who attended and took time to write down their visions, we look forward to being in the flow of next year’s Living River, because in truth, we already are.