A nonprofit land trust based in Walla Walla, Washington, plans to buy a conservation easement to protect 3 miles of steelhead spawning habitat at a ranch near the Painted Hills in north-central Oregon.
Blue Mountain Land Trust recently received a $1.42 grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to purchase the easement at Canyon Creek Ranch, on Bear Creek in the John Day Basin.
Jason Bulay, conservation director for the land trust, said the easement will ensure Canyon Creek Ranch stays in agricultural production, while also protecting fish, wildlife, upland sage and grassland habitat.
“We all benefit, I think, from having healthy populations of fish and wildlife,” Bulay said. “Some of these are very important species, from a cultural and economic standpoint.”
In particular, Bulay said they intend to preserve healthy riparian habitat for Mid-Columbia steelhead, which are listed as a threatened species. The easement includes 3.1 miles of steelhead habitat in Bear Creek, adjacent to the Painted Hills Unit in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Historically, Canyon Creek Ranch was owned by a land and cattle company which, according to the project application, caused extensive degradation by overgrazing the uplands and allowing cattle unrestricted access to riparian areas.
The current landowners, Terrance and Peggy Long, purchased the ranch in 2000. Since then, they have worked with multiple partners, including OWEB, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wheeler Soil and Water Conservation District and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to restore the property.
Together, they have cut juniper on more than 665 acres and converted open irrigation ditches to pipes. Last year, the Wheeler SWCD installed 21 artificial beaver dam structures along the creek to increase surface flows in streams that otherwise dry up during the summer. The tribes have also committed an additional $500,000 for riparian zone restoration through 2020.
Bulay said the land trust was excited to work with such committed landowners.
“We like it when we can work with a landowner who shares our goals, and permanently protect that land,” he said.
In the past, Blue Mountain Land Trust served four counties in southeast Washington, along with Umatilla and Union counties in northeast Oregon. The organization opened a new John Day region office in July 2017, expanding into Grant, Gilliam, Wheeler and Morrow counties.
“It’s a lot of the same resource concerns that we’ve been dealing with here in the Walla Walla area, as far as the salmon and steelhead spawning streams and the wildlife habitat and the working lands,” Bulay said. “We thought there were a lot of great potential land projects in the area, and landowners to work with.”
Bulay said the land trust also received $800,000 in funding from OWEB to purchase an easement at the 9,000-acre Bennett Ranch in Baker County to protect sage grouse habitat.
The Canyon Creek Ranch easement is just one of 21 projects funded by OWEB in the Mid-Columbia region, totaling $3.1 million. John Keith, executive director of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, applauded the grants, saying they will help to maintain the Oregon way of life for generations to come.
“Oregon is unique for many reasons, and one is the commitment Oregonians have made to conserve what’s left,” Keith said.
Other projects funded by OWEB include:
• $103,687 to the North Fork John Day Watershed Council for restoration work on Granite Creek, reducing sediment and lowering water temperature flowing in to the Middle Fork John Day River.
• $190,176 to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation for restoring the floodplain at Desolation Creek south of Ukiah.
• $150,000 to the Morrow Soil and Water Conservation District to restore 240 acres of wetlands along the Columbia River between Umatilla and Irrigon.