Sometimes heroes are widely acknowledged and sometimes they toil in relative obscurity. One of my heroes recently and unexpectedly passed away. Her name was Julie Keil and, though not well known, she had an outsized hand in the rebirth of Whychus Creek and the effort to return salmon and steelhead to the upper Deschutes River basin.
Almost 20 years ago, an upstart land trust faced a huge challenge. A scenic meadow on a small central Oregon creek had been subdivided into homesites and was in the early stages of being marketed. A frantic call from the local watershed council coordinator resulted in a quickly scheduled visit between myself and the landowner. During that meeting, the landowner agreed to pull the properties off the market and give the Deschutes Land Trust a few weeks to find a partner to help purchase and protect the meadow for fish and wildlife. With step one accomplished, the bigger challenge loomed in finding a funder to step forward and help purchase the property.
Recognizing the historic importance of the meadow to the region’s salmon and steelhead runs and aware that downstream dam relicensing might eventually restore fish passage and offer funding opportunities, I got in touch with fishery and hydro managers at Portland General Electric. Relying more on intuition than hard data, Julie Keil took this idea to PGE’s Habitat Mitigation Committee. Within days of reaching our temporary agreement with the landowner, I found myself on the 17th floor Board Room of PGE’s One World Trade Center, pitching the acquisition of Camp Polk Meadow to PGE’s Habitat Mitigation Committee. With Julie’s strong support, the Committee committed to back our effort to negotiate a purchase of the threatened meadow.
Driving back to Bend that night, elated and exhausted, I had no idea that nearly three years of almost daily negotiations between the Land Trust, PGE, and the owner of Camp Polk lay ahead. Nor did I realize that the years ahead would offer me a unique glimpse into the world of federal hydro-electric relicensing and large utilities. Yet, through thick and thin, PGE stood shoulder to shoulder with the Deschutes Land Trust. Despite pressure to meet project deadlines and close the deal or move on, Julie Keil stayed the course. While only Julie could speak to the pressures and her motivation for sticking her neck out so far, for so very long, her remarkable integrity and steadfastness would serve PGE well in guiding their hydro relicensing efforts on the lower Deschutes River and elsewhere.
Camp Polk Meadow Preserve was established in 2000 as a direct result of Julie's leadership. Its status as a protected wildlife preserve gave essential momentum to the rebirth of Whychus Creek, spurring a unique collaboration to restore and protect priority floodplain, rivers, and streams, and, ultimately, restore passage for historic runs of salmon and steelhead into the upper Deschutes Basin. Julie’s leadership meant that ratepayer dollars went into essential mitigation projects, rather than litigation. Recognition would eventually come from the hydro industry, when Julie received the Dr. Kenneth Henwood Award, the industry’s highest honor. Yet, for those who walk along Whychus Creek or tour the restored wetlands of Camp Polk Meadow Preserve, few will know the name of the woman who’s perseverance, dedication and vision helped reshape the future of central Oregon. For those of us who did know her, we know that Oregon just lost a giant.
- Brad Chalfant, Executive Director, Deschutes Land Trust
Learn more about Julie Keil and efforts within the hydro-electric industry to honor her memory.