Growing a Restoration Economy

The cottonwoods that tower over McDowell Creek still amaze Richard Bates.

It’s been nearly six years since the Sweet Home-area farmer, desperate to stem the gradual erosion of his land into the creek, worked with the South Santiam Watershed Council to plant saplings along a quarter-mile of its banks.

The planting was a happy marriage of convenience: Council workers saw the project as an opportunity to provide shade for the creek’s threatened steelhead, and Bates found a solution to his disappearing property line.

Now, Bates says, “it’s starting to look like a jungle.” And those eroding banks? “Where things were getting tromped to death by cattle, now they’re being held together by trees.”

Bates couldn’t have known when he agreed to the project that the saplings would also benefit the basin’s economy. But the unique partnership that nourished those trees from seed to forest has provided jobs for dozens of Willamette Valley workers and consistent business for five local, family-owned nurseries.

The partnership is called Contract Grow, and it’s an example of the widespread benefits stemming from an unprecedented push to restore the Willamette River and its tributaries. It’s also a testament to the power of combining restoration dollars with crucial support to help groups do more restoration, more effectively.

A long-term commitment from Meyer Memorial Trust’s Willamette River Initiative, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation empowered the basin’s conservation workers to tackle larger, more ambitious restoration projects than ever before.

Many watershed councils had done restoration on a small scale, working with a handful of property owners at a time. The new investment meant they could partner with hundreds of landowners, with hundreds more interested in joining.

Recognizing that the new capacity could trigger growing pains, Meyer in 2009 began funding a full-time staff position at the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to support watershed councils as they scaled-up their impact.

The groups until then had been buying plants in small quantities: a few bigleaf maples to shade a sliver of riverbank, a few Oregon grape to fill the understory. They purchased potted plants at retail value, about $3 apiece. To a home gardener, that might seem reasonable; for a watershed council buying plants in volume, it was neither affordable nor convenient.

“I was literally calling six different nurseries to get the plants, then stuffing them into my car to get them to the site,” said Sarah Dyrdahl, executive director of the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council.

The need for a better system was clear.

Kendra Smith, who had observed the success of a bulk plant-buying contract developed by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services and then adopted by Clean Water Services in the Tualatin River watershed, saw an opportunity to replicate the model.

Under her leadership, the basin’s conservation groups began combining forces to submit one large, annual order to nurseries contracted to grow plants for their projects. In doing so, they gained control over the type, quantity and quality of species they transplanted.

Pre-ordering also allowed them to specify bare-root plants, which are far more affordable than potted plants. The switch saved millions of dollars in materials alone, while also eliminating the waste and physical strain of transplanting trees from plastic pots. And because the groups placed their order two years in advance, nursery owners gained certainty that the seeds they sowed would be in demand when the time came to harvest.

“It’s one of the things that has allowed our business to achieve a sustainable point,” said George Kral, owner of Scholls Valley Native Plant Nursery in Forest Grove. Today, the Willamette Basin contract has become the nursery’s second-biggest source of business.

But somebody needed to get all those saplings in the ground, and then maintain them while they grew into established trees.

Enter Rosario Franco. The Aumsville resident began his career replanting forestland after logging. But when conservation groups began launching projects that required Franco’s skills, he saw a niche to fill.

“This planting is good for the habitat, the water, the fish,” Franco said. “It’s a good feeling to know your work is doing that.”

In the years since, the basin’s restoration groups, together with area landowners, nurseries and businesses like Franco’s, have planted more than 4,000 acres. They’ve increased the pace of restoration sixfold since 2009.

The surge in business has enabled Franco to pay 33 full-time, year-round workers — a rarity in the seasonal planting industry.

When crews finished planting Bates’ property, the farmer gained a stable riverbank, new fencing to keep his cattle out of the stream and a tranquil campsite for his grandchildren’s frequent visits.

Even fish and wildlife seem pleased with the results: A family of beavers has taken up residence in the newly-wooded waterway. Their dam, built in part with branches from Bates’ trees, traps water in cool, shaded pools that make a perfect haven for steelhead.