Over the past two decades, Deschutes Land Trust (DLT) has played a significant role in bringing Whychus Creek back to life.
Working with willing sellers, DLT has purchased or gained conservation easements on land that has preserved eight miles of Whychus Creek and 2,200 acres of surrounding land. Not only has that land returned to a more natural ecology, it has also become a playground and living research laboratory for the people of Sisters Country.
Now, DLT is making a final push to complete its conservation efforts along the Sisters Country waterway. The Land Trust has launched a major capital campaign to complete purchases of land along the creek.
"We've been talking to landowners for a long time and getting to the point where we can acquire property or easements," said Brad Chalfant, DLT's executive director. "At this point, I think we can see the finish line."
It'll take some $15 million to get across that finish line -with about $4 million of that figure to be raised locally, from private donors in Central Oregon. The local funds can be leveraged to raise the balance from federal and state agencies and foundations.
"They want to see local buy-in," Chalfant said.
The funds raised through The Campaign for Whychus Creek will not only be used to acquire land, but also to fund stewardship projects and to "significantly improve access," Chalfant noted. DLT's philosophy is centered around management of the land forever, with the public enjoying its beauty and benefits so that the next generations feel invested in the land.
"We don't buy it and lock it up," said DLT board vice president Kim McCarrel, who is noted for her books on Northwest equestrian trails.
Chalfant said he is not at liberty to discuss specific properties, but it is fairly obvious looking at a map that the properties the Land Trust is seeking to acquire would bridge gaps between DLT properties along the creek.
"We're looking, frankly, for the biggest properties, the properties that have the most stream mileage and the most floodplain."
It is in the floodplains where the High Desert ecosystem has the greatest biodiversity, Chalfant noted.
Land and/or rights acquisitions could preserve another six-mile reach of the creek. Restoration efforts would include a "re-meandering" of the creek similar to what was done on DLT's Camp Polk Preserve. That project has proved remarkably successful at restoring a more natural ecosystem - and controlling the output of the moody, flashy creek.
"The water table has come up four, five, six feet," Chalfant said.
The Land Trust's first phase of the Campaign for Whychus Creek was the purchase of 480 additional acres on Whychus Creek. This purchase protects another two miles of Whychus Creek and secures important habitat for salmon and steelhead, deer and elk, eagles and songbirds. The newly-expanded Whychus Canyon Preserve also offers public hiking access to Whychus Creek. The Land Trust is currently developing plans for enhancement of fish and wildlife habitat and providing appropriate educational and recreational use on the new portion of Whychus Canyon Preserve. The addition will remain closed until next spring when initial trail planning and construction will be complete.
DLT's work ties in with the work of other nonprofits and agencies that are working ultimately to restore historic steelhead runs on Whychus Creek. Recently, a partnership dismantled the last irrigation diversion dam on the creek, at Pine Meadow Ranch.
That project involved the landowners and water-rights holders of Pine Meadow Ranch as well as public agencies and several non-profits. The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, Deschutes National Forest, Deschutes River Conservancy and Pine Meadow Ranch are all participating in the fisheries restoration efforts.
Restoration of stream flows, recreation of habitat, and funding of ongoing management create a unique level of commitment to Whychus Creek.
"Nobody has done the kind of coordinated restoration that has brought a stream back to life anywhere else on this scale," Chalfant said.
McCarrel says that the conservation work is an example of the ways in which the people of Sisters Country pull together to reach common goals.
"Sisters is special," she said. "It really is."
For more information on The Campaign for Whychus Creek visit www.deschuteslandtrust.org.
By Jim Cornelius
The Nugget NewspaperSeptember 30, 2014