This summer, Meyer Memorial Trust announced its largest initiative to date: $25 million to support Justice Oregon for Black Lives. With this new commitment, we seek to make sweeping changes to the systems that perpetuate racial inequity in Oregon. This isn’t the first time Meyer has rallied behind a single issue — and it won’t be the last. Thanks in part to one of its initiative predecessors, the Willamette River Initiative, we know that long-term investment in a focused area can have a deep and lasting impact.
The Willamette River Initiative launched in 2008 with the goal of achieving a healthier river by better aligning the efforts of the nonprofits, agencies and researchers focused on river health. It sought to build a strong foundation for future river health work. And, starting in 2015, it worked to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the watershed conservation field in the Willamette River Basin.
During the WRI, the pace and scale of habitat restoration increased mightily, new regional partnerships and networks took root, and cohorts of the initiative’s mostly white, mainstream environmental grantees began to embrace the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion — first through immersive learning, then through internal organizational change. At the WRI's biennial conference, Within Our Reach, you could look around the room and feel a sense of community. We suspected these were the inklings of change. Now, more than a decade and $20 million in Meyer grants later, we have the data to back it up. An external evaluation, completed by the Portland-based firm Dialogues In Action, tells us definitively: The WRI made a real and durable impact on our ability to achieve a healthier Willamette River system.
The evaluation also points to a key ingredient that made this impact possible: collaboration.
We’re lucky in Oregon to have the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, a state agency devoted to improving the ecological health of our lands and waters. OWEB was Meyer’s core partner from the start. By joining together public and private funds, we were able to leverage enough support to ramp up restoration in seven major tributaries of the Willamette River and along its main channel. At the time, the field lacked the capacity to take on large-scale, long-term projects in the river’s floodplain, and little restoration had taken place there. But decades of research told us this was an area of high priority if we wanted to make big strides in river health. Meyer’s flexible capacity funding gave organizations the ability to think strategically over the long term and build trust with riverside landowners in the hopes the landowners would partner with organizations to improve habitat on their lands.
Combined with project dollars from OWEB and later from the federal Bonneville Power Administration, Meyer’s funding unlocked close to 30 large-scale projects on the mainstem Willamette River. Many of these projects are in places you can visit today, like Willamette Mission State Park in Keizer and Minto-Brown Island Park in downtown Salem. This is on top of the over 900 landowners working with watershed councils in the tributaries, compared with 83 in 2010 — an exponential increase made possible by Meyer’s partnership with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. The BEF brought its innovative Model Watershed Program to the Willamette. Along with restoration expertise, the BEF supported collaborative efforts across the basin by filling in the gaps that individual organizations had a hard time covering on their own, such as bulk ordering plants and seeking funding. The collective impact of funders, nonprofits, government agencies, scientists and community members working in a coordinated way was integral to the WRI’s success.
Forests take decades to grow back, but we can take comfort in knowing that nature is resilient if given a chance. Even in young forests planted during the WRI, farmers and ecologists alike are seeing a vibrant new buzz of birds and insects, the first signs of a recovering ecosystem. In one site, Wapato Cove, a relentless invasive weed has been greatly decreased and wapato, an important Tribal First Food, has taken off in its place. I’m eager to watch as the ecological successes of the WRI continue to develop in the coming years.
For Meyer, building community is as important as grantmaking. The WRI exemplified this. The initiative set a tone of network-weaving by hosting events like Within Our Reach and serving as a basin-wide “matchmaker” to help seed new projects and partnerships. Organizations met the moment. Across the basin, we’ve seen people step into a deeper level of partnership than ever before. These new collaboratives are here to stay; they have shared staff, formal partnership agreements and, in one case, a new office building that serves as a nonprofit hub. The evaluation tells us that this change in how people are in relationship with each other is likely to endure.
From the start, Meyer hoped to unite people across the basin toward a healthier Willamette. The data say that establishing a common vision for the river is one of the major accomplishments of the WRI — no small feat. And yet, this is only true for those who were part of the WRI. As a mainstream conservation program framed by Western science, the WRI had to reckon with its exclusive whiteness. This meant inviting its grantees into immersive learning, while beginning to build connections with leaders of color, Indigenous leaders and community-based organizations. Some white leaders who weren’t fully ready to dive in at the time are now the most powerful voices among their peers in support of addressing racial equity in the context of river health. It’s still early, but the work has begun to build trust between white leaders and the Indigenous leaders and leaders of color who have long advocated for healthy water, air and land for their communities but have been denied meaningful access to decision-making tables.
How was this culture shift possible in only three years? The data tell us that it was in large part due to the WRI’s culture of community and trust built over time. It was the same recipe that enabled the creation of a new community-driven organization that would live outside Meyer and center diversity, equity and inclusion from the get-go. The new Willamette River Network is poised to expand upon what the WRI started, with the leadership of Indigenous people and people of color at the fore and a vision of people and rivers thriving together.
In 2008, the Willamette mattered to Meyer and it mattered to our partners and grantees. It should matter to all of us now. About 7 out of 10 Oregonians live in the Willamette Valley, most of them within a 20-minute drive of the river. The Willamette is the largest river system that is entirely contained within Oregon's borders. This makes it our river — our gift and our responsibility. The Willamette Valley produces 75 percent of Oregon’s economic output, and our river is its backbone. It provides recreation and tourism; it waters our crops; it gives us drinking water, beer, wine and cider; it washes semiconductors. The river’s salmon have been a cornerstone of the diets and cultures of Willamette Valley Tribes since time immemorial. A healthy river system is an enormous economic and cultural asset. What would it look like to treat it as one?
I believe we’re at a pivotal moment where we can unlock far greater impact for rivers and for people, with equity at the center. But it will take a broader coalition of collaborators, including public and private funders, businesses, and industry.
The WRI has shown us how much our community is capable of when given the right kind of support. The portal is open. Let’s step through it together.
A crowd of people marching during the 2017 Portland People's Climate Movement March. Photo by Fred Joe Photo.