A year after wildlife restoration work first started on the Oxbow and Forrest conservation areas, fences are up, plants are growing and the first benefits are being studied.
"We were pretty impressed with the (streambed planting) survival," said Brian Cochran, habitat manager for the Oxbow. "They seem to be doing a lot better than we thought they would."
"The first year is the critical year," said John Hair, co-owner of Natural Reclamation Services (NRS), the company that did the work.
The rehabilitation project is being funded through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a service offered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program was established in 1998 to encourage landowners to establish vegetation along streams for riparian and habitat restoration, and stream and water-quality preservation.
On the Oxbow and Forrest conservation areas, which are owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the primary purpose is enhancement of the habitat for fish, particularly chinook and steelhead salmon.
Forty percent of salmon that spawn on the Middle Fork of the John Day River do so on the Forrest Conservation Area and 10 percent on the Oxbow, Cochran said.
"Yeah, there's a lot of wildlife value to this place. The whole purpose for our enrollment was for our fish enhancement of habitat," said Cochran. "But the wildlife value, on the Forrest, elk come down every night to graze, and when a car comes along, they run up into the woods. When it's covered, they're going to be able to stay out there."
One hundred three of 1,022 acres on the Oxbow are enrolled in CREP. On the Forrest, 151 acres out of 760 are enrolled.
"As far as CREP projects go, to date, I think that's the biggest single application," said Jason Hair, John's brother and partner. "I know potentially there's going to be some bigger ones, but as far as CREP goes, this is the biggest that I've heard of."
NRS used a new technique on the Oxbow and Forrest for enhancing the survival rate of the plants they set in the ground. Strips of permeable mulch fabric were laid down last fall, and the plants were planted this spring. So far, the survival rate is about 85 percent, even after a dry summer.
"I know our rule of thumb, prior to using this technique, (was) if you had a site with 50 percent, it was a home run," said Jason Hair. "So, we've raised the bar quite a bit going to this technique."
The plants are protected with a plastic weave to keep the deer from eating the stems. Over time, the plastic will break down and let the plant grow naturally.
"Next year, our plan is, once these all leaf out, we're going to spray (them) with deer-away, to keep the deer from nipping on the salad bar here," said Cochran. "We're also going to experiment with some caging, to see how (the plants) respond without any browse activity at all, and then we're also going to play with some electric fencing to see if that also deters the browse."
As part of the project, NRS installed miles of fence along the river to keep grazing cattle away. Water gaps in the fence were established to allow the cattle to be moved from one side of the river to the other. Water troughs were also built, tapping into nearby springs to provide water for thirsty animals.
This fall, NRS has a crew pulling weeds from the black tarps, to remove the plant competition. NRS offers a one-year maintenance contract as part of their business plan.
"The rancher looks for new fencing, new water gaps, new water developments, and then his tradeoff is allow the CREP project to go in," said John. "This is just one of a multitude of different styles of fences that's 100 percent cost-shared. And those are the things that the government has offered the rancher that he doesn't know about. He has a variety of choices, so he can pick the system that works the best with his operation and get it cost-shared. The rest of the people benefit from the trees and shrubs and cuttings that are planted. So it's a nice tradeoff. Everybody gets something for it."
The way it's set up now, with the incentives, if they go into an agreement with the state, it can actually work out to 115 percent of the cost, said Tom Falvey, FSA Grant County Executive Director.
Landowners are signing up all the time, Falvey said.
"We do with individual landowners, anywhere from 3 to 120 acres," he said. "We've even got a two-acre CREP program. When you're only coming out 180 feet from the creek, it takes a lot of creek to get a lot of acres."
FSA has 22 contracts in Grant County, with the Oxbow and Forrest being the largest. Falvey is getting ready to enroll over 300 acres of land in Logan Valley, now owned by the Burns Paiute tribe.
"They saw how successful it was, (and) they talked to the contractors," said Falvey.
One of the benefits is the fact the annual payments count as farm income, and thus toward keeping a farm deferral.
The Oregon CREP program is set to expire next September, and Falvey doesn't know if the state will renew it.
"I think this is a very popular program," he said. "I think the farm bill will continue it. But as far as the state of Oregon enhancing it, I don't know."
Falvey said that FSA will spend nearly a million dollars over 15 years on the Oxbow and Forrest projects.
"Going into this with the tribes, and spending the kind of money that we spent up there, we didn't know what the reception would be," said Falvey. "It's been really positive."