Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council

Posted: Sep 7, 2005
Written by: 
Jane Braxton Little, updated by Kathryn Sachs


Objective: To encourage and facilitate the use of natural resource principles that promote ecosystem health and diversity. Through community involvement and education, this partnership supports management of all land within the watershed in a manner that sustains natural resources and that will, in turn, contribute to economic and community well-being and resilience. 


History: Nearly 70 percent of the Applegate watershed is publicly owned and has been subjected to intensive logging, road building, mining, and fire suppression. The rest of the watershed land is rural and includes many small farms. The decline of the timber industry in the early 1990s created a local economic slump. It also left overstocked and degraded forests, the result of years under a management system that favored sawlogs over ecosystem health. 


In 1992, Jack Shipley, an environmentalist, and Jack Neal, a logger, got together to discuss collaborative land management. The two men were tired of the gridlock and antagonism that existed between special-interest communities in Southwest Oregon, and they shared a goal of improving forest management in the Applegate watershed that would contribute to the local economy, which was driven historically by timber. 


Shipley and Neal launched a series of weekly roundtable discussions to address forest management issues. They invited farmers, ranchers, agency officials, environmentalists, loggers, and local residents. Their emphasis was cooperation among people who shared the watershed, but thought they had very little else in common. Participants were encouraged to identify themselves on the basis of goals and ideas, rather than professional or ideological affiliation. The group developed ground rules for communication and brought in volunteer facilitators to assist with resolving conflicts. 

These early meetings evolved into the Applegate Partnership. The partnership established clear goals: natural-resource management through consensus and a stable local economy.

In 1994 the Applegate River Watershed Council was organized as a subcommittee of the partnership to carry out a variety of on-the-ground activities such as fish passage improvement, aquatic habitat restoration, road rehabilitation, floodplain enhancement and protection, re-vegetation of native riparian and upland plant communities, and implementation of sustainable agricultural and forest management practices. Over time they became effectively separate entities - an administrative body (the partnership) and an implementing entity (the ARWC). In 2008, in an effort to streamline the organization they were re-united as the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council.

Macroinvertibrate monitoring project, Photo courtesy of the Applegate Partnership 

Accomplishments: As one of the oldest collaborative groups in the West, the Applegate Partnership has worked with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on numerous projects aimed at watershed-scale planning for forest and land management. Early activities focused on innovative timber sales that offered bids to companies demonstrating the best management practices for reducing fire hazards and enhancing healthier forests. When the Northwest Forest Plan required 10 Adaptive Management Areas, the Applegate served as a model. These 10 areas, which had all been impacted by the agency's reduction in timber harvests, were designated for experiments designed to allow flexibility in on-the-ground activities and innovations in contracting methods. The Applegate River Partnership Council used a $100,000 USFS grant to establish long-term monitoring plots for quantifying forest response to different management treatments across 40,000 acres of land. 

In 2001, the partnership completed a community-based Fire Protection Strategy designed to address fuels reduction, fire protection, and emergency response for private and public lands in the entire watershed. The first comprehensive fire plan in the nation developed by citizens, it offers a chart of options for reducing forest fuels that includes costs and impact on riparian zones. The Western Governor's Association adopted the landmark plan as a model for communities throughout the West. 

The partnership's most ambitious project on private land involves restructuring the ditch system that has provided irrigation water for approximately 40 ranches on nearly 800 acres in the Applegate Valley. The plan focuses on removing several small dams that have been identified as barriers to steelhead trout, silver salmon, and Coho salmon. While farmers lose their historic rights to the surface water, they are able to replace irrigation water with groundwater, sprinklers, and pumps provided to them to balance the higher energy costs associated with pumping groundwater. 

Monitoring activities in the basin have been on going for better than a decade, funded from a variety of sources. The partnership's water quality monitoring program has grown from a summer project using university students as temporary employees to a year ‘round effort conducted by both volunteers and staff. Together they maintain over 30 monitoring stations that produce a wealth of information about the watershed. Several federal agencies rely heavily on the partnership's data to inform their own work, and other watershed organizations have used the partnership's monitoring program as a model. The high quality of its work and the uniqueness of the Applegate watershed, have resulted in the organization’s receipt of major research grant through Northern Arizona University and memorandums of Understanding with Southern Oregon University, the University of Washington, and Yale. 


The partnership has been deeply involved in the multi-year Western Oregon Plan Revision process, through which the federal Bureau of Land Management is revisiting the six western Oregon Resource Management Plans that tier to the Northwest Forest Plan. With the support of a number of environmental groups, the partnership submitted a fairly extensive change proposal to the cooperating agencies. "We are supporting management on federal lands, but management that falls more in line with what has been going on in the Applegate for the last decade," Jack Shipley explains. "Timber sales have moved from clear cuts to thinning-from-below, addressing fire and ecological issues as well as timber resources.... We said we have good data to show that the old system didn't work very well ecologically, and if you're going to do public management in the Applegate, there need to be good ecological reasons. The timber extraction should be a benefit of the ecological restoration work, not its driver. That gave a lot of the industry heartburn." Today the watershed assessments in the 500,000 acres of the basin have been completed and the planning process is underway. Shipley hopes that this work will “slowly improve conditions that are unacceptable.” 

Most recently Applegate Partnership and Watershed Alliance has shifted its focus to the contentious issue of aggregate extraction in the basin. The organization serves as a sponsor for an “Oregon Solutions” team, a program spearheaded by Oregon’s Governor Kulongoski. Applegate Sustainable Aggregate, as the project is now known, is has been working since early 2009 to bring together over 30 stakeholders in and around the basin to meet regularly in an attempt to develop a plan for extraction of aggregate from the river without harming the aquatic ecosystem. According to Jack Shipley, “there is a high level of agreement on extraction” in the watershed. He acknowledges that in managing resources like aggregate “concessions must be made but not so long as they damage valuable ecosystems.” The group hopes to have agreement on a plan by June or July of 2009. 

The partnership's various land management projects have greatly enhanced a sense of community throughout the rural valley, symbolized in a widely distributed button displaying the word "They" slashed by a prominent red line. Cooperation among private landowners and with public agencies was once rare, but is now the norm. Shipley, reflecting on this long history of cooperative problem solving in the region, muses, “For solutions to be real they have to be collaborative.” The Applegate Partnership and Watershed Alliance, with its long history of shared problem solving, successfully embodies this mantra.

Challenges/constraints: The Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council has evolved and matured over time as organizational resources and community needs have changed. Since Shipley and Neal created the Applegate Partnership in 1992, timber harvests on federal land have continued to decline. This affected participation in the group and the projects it developed. Timber industry representatives dropped out. The partnership has adapted its land management objectives and expertise to private lands, which have presented new and equally taxing challenges. 

The partnership has also seen changes in its relationships with federal land management agencies. "When we first started," recalls Shipley, "we were meeting a lot - weekly for the first seven years. Then we started going to monthly. We were having two meetings a month. One was a public forum around public lands issues, and people were coming and wanting to verbally beat up the agency people a lot. We didn't want to support that, so we restructured. We stopped having the public forums on a regular basis, and now just do them on specific issues when they come up. The agencies - BLM and the Forest Service - still come to the table, and we still meet once a month, usually in a session that covers the different activities going on." The 13-member board also replaced its strict policy of consensus-based decisions with a two-vote minimum requirement to block a decision. 

At one point the partnership had annual operating budget of between $1 and $1½ million. Now it's around $500,000. Where there were once five or six employees, there is now only an executive director. "In the past we took people on with specific expertise in hydrology and forestry or whatever. We decided to hire an administrator who had a lot of public policy expertise, and instead of having a big staff we are moving to have everything done by contract. As of the first of May, we're going to a virtual office - no physical location. Our meetings already are at the public library." Shipley says the partnership is becoming "lean and mean," and the money saved will be put directly into projects. 

Volunteers are key to the partnership's success. Each board member is required to participate on a minimum of two committees and be actively involved in a minimum of two projects. The committees deal variously with riparian and fisheries, forestry, agriculture, and outreach and education issues. They meet independently of the board and ramrod the projects within their individual areas of concern, reporting on their work at the monthly board meetings. The outreach and education committee plans to completely re-vamp the organization's website, making large amounts of materials now in the partnership's archives accessible on-line. Says Shipley, "We've been doing a lot of own stuff, but now we're looking at sharing our information, our lessons learned." Given the partnership's long history and trail-blazing work, that should benefit not only the Applegate, but also collaborative groups across the country. 

For more information see:

The Applegate Partnership

Applegate Fire Plan

Applegate Sustainable Aggregate

Sustainable Northwest case study on the partnership
Copyright © 2019 Red Lodge Clearinghouse. All rights reserved.