Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Collaboration

Posted: Feb 1, 2006
Written by: 
Natalie Henry

Upper Joseph Creek Watershed, Wallowa County, Oregon

Objective: Members of the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Collaboration are working to restore the health of the watershed while also creating local jobs and building trust and common ground among former adversaries. First, the group led a two-year effort to assess the current condition of the watershed. Now the group is working to implement projects that will improve conditions.

Participants: Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee; Wallowa Resources; Nez Perce Tribe; U.S. Forest Service; The Nature Conservancy; Hells Canyon Preservation Council; Wallowa Forest Products; Joseph Timber Co.; Oregon Department of Forestry; Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; Oregon State University Extension Service; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; National Marine Fisheries Service; USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; Defenders of Wildlife; Soil and Water Conservation District; Grand Ronde Model Watershed Program; private contractors.

History: The members of the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Collaboration have varied recollections of how the group got its start, but most agree that it grew largely out of the Wallowa County/Nez Perce salmon recovery plan, which was completed in 1993. The early 1990s marked the beginning of many difficult years in Wallowa County. Species were being listed as endangered, profitable high-intensity logging was waning, and environmental groups were just hitting their litigious stride. The tension peaked in 1994, when the then-executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council (HCPC), a local environmental group, was burned in effigy in downtown Enterprise, Oregon, the county seat of Wallowa County. The HCPC had challenged Wallowa-Whitman National Forest's timber sales in every way possible, in and out of court, claiming the U.S. Forest Service was illegally ignoring wildlife and habitat concerns.

At the height of the tension, Wallowa Resources brought together a group of varied stakeholders to discuss the county's environmental, social, and economic future. HCPC leaders attended and conceded that they were not entirely anti-logging and wanted to find less-combative ways to pursue their conservation goals. In addition, the county sought to begin implementing the part of the salmon plan that called for watershed assessments to be done throughout the county. The group agreed the plan was a good place to start building consensus and trust, and decided the most logical way to begin was to go step by step through the county, assessing conditions at the sub-watershed scale, identifying necessary projects, and implementing them.

"If everyone worked together on a watershed assessment, they would all have an idea of what conditions were out there and they would all get on the same page on ways to address that," said Erin Melville, Watershed Program Coordinator for Wallowa Resources. "The old model was the Forest Service would propose a project and then it would get appealed," she said.

The group hit upon Upper Joseph Creek as the best place to do the first assessment. Upper Joseph Creek is part of the Grande Ronde Basin, which flows northeast into the Snake River. Upper Joseph Creek consists of three tributaries that join together at a confluence marking the beginning of Lower Joseph Creek. It seemed to be a good place to start because roughly half the land is public and the other half is private, none of the public land is federally designated wilderness, the land lies outside of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, and it has only one species listed under the Endangered Species Act: anadromous steelhead trout.


"We thought originally that all we had to do was take existing data, make a few field trips, get together and say, 'This is what we should do,'" said Bruce Dunn, chairman of the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee (NRAC) and an employee of RY Timber Company, one of the largest private timberland owners in Wallowa County. But the group soon found out that the existing data was too old to use: the timber data was 25 years old and the rangeland data was 35 years old. So they contracted to gather new data. During 2005, after more than two years of work they completed the assessment, developed a list of recommended projects, and began implementing them.

Brett Brownscombe, formerly with the HCPC and now conservation director of Oregon Trout, said that having the Forest Service sit at the table on equal terms with everyone else was critical to the group's success. "I think that was really key, making the Forest Service behave or assume the role of a collaborator and not the driver of this effort. And instead of starting with a proposed action—which is normally the way things would go and puts anybody involved in an inherently reactive position—letting the proposal come from the group instead of top-down from the agency," he said.
Accomplishments: The group's first accomplishment was to draft a set of stewardship principles, which they did by analyzing the watershed's condition; incorporating social, cultural, and economic dynamics of the community; addressing both the symptoms and causes of habitat loss; and attempting to keep the landscape resilient to catastrophic events.

After about two years, the group completed the Upper Joseph Creek watershed assessment. Part of the reason the assessment took so long was the difficulty in completing rangeland assessments on private land around Upper Joseph Creek. Private ranchers were unwilling to let the group evaluate the health of the property if the data was to be put in a public document that anyone could access via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). So, with the help of one of the group's members, John Williams of Oregon State University Extension Service, the raw data on private rangelands was put under OSU's purview as a research project, meaning it could not be accessed via FOIA. With these assurances, private ranchers let scientists collect data on their land. Melville called this "a pretty good accomplishment, I think, because where else are you going to get private landowners to sign off on an assessment of their ground that they're not in control of?" The on-the-ground data was then used to ground truth high-resolution satellite images obtained by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), allowing scientists to assess different vegetation types and conditions across the watershed.

While the watershed assessment was being peer reviewed, the group got busy implementing priority projects. "We have a list of over 50 projects ready to go. They all have social consensus behind them, and they'll produce jobs," Brownscombe said. Since 2004, Wallowa Resources has raised over $750,000 to implement the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Action Plan. To date, over 35 miles of stream habitat have been restored for native steelhead. The biggest of these projects involved the replacement of the Billy Creek culvert with a bridge, and the replacement of the Summit Creek culvert with an open bottom arch. This opened upstream habitat for steelhead spawning and rearing. In addition, 41 off-channel water sources have been developed or reconstructed to support livestock grazing. In 2008 riparian improvements were completed in Upper Joseph Creek, and road work and the restoration of native hardwoods and upland water sources began. Work in 2009 is expected to include two timber sales designed to reduce fuel loads and promote the growth of large trees, as well as the decommissioning of some roads to improve water quality.

To improve the condition of the streambed, this old culvert on Billy Creek has been replaced by a bridge.
Photo courtesy of Wallowa Resources

In 2006 the NRAC began its second watershed analysis – of Lower Joseph Creek. That area was chosen because, as many members pointed out, as soon as they finish one assessment and begin implementation, they need to start the next watershed assessment so that projects on the ground continue at a predictable rate and local contractors can depend on them as regular, stable work. In 2008, forest and range condition assessments were completed on 177,929 acres. That information will be combined with information being gathered by the collaborative teams looking at riparian conditions, wildlife habitat, roads and recreation, cultural resources, and economic benefits to begin of the process of developing long-term management recommendations reflecting the views of the area’s stakeholders.

In 2007, Wallowa Resources was chosen to receive the “Rise to the Future” Partner Award from the Chief of the US Forest Service. The award celebrates excellence in professional fisheries management, specifically, the contributions made by Wallowa Resources to restoring fisheries in the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed.

Challenges/constraints: One of the biggest initial challenges was the lack of models to follow. The Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Collaboration—like many of the West's collaborative natural resource initiatives—blazed its own trail. "We didn't have a lot of examples ahead of us, said Alicia Glassford of the Forest Service. Williams agreed. "We were breaking new ground. We hadn't found where anyone else had done this where the county was actually in charge of a watershed assessment on federal ground.” Since then many communities have benefited from the “lessons learned” in the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed effort, which has been the subject of numerous articles and case studies. Participants in the collaboration have been generous in sharing their experiences and advice.

Money, of course, was another challenge, because none of the members, including the Forest Service, had enough. With federal budgets steadily declining during the period of the initial assessment, “It's been a little difficult for the Forest Service to bring the traditional funding sources to the table…," Glassford said. Wallowa Resources and other members of the collaboration had to raise funds from other sources, and most members volunteered their time to participate.

Another common challenge for local collaborations is employee turnover, especially at federal agencies. "You're always having to take two steps back, working with the new entities at the table, bringing them up to speed," Williams said.
 Folks working on sampling data in the field for the range portion of the watershed assessment
Photo courtesy of Wallowa Resources
Getting private ranchers to agree to let the group do an assessment of their rangelands was a challenge, but so too was analyzing the satellite images. "It's just really hard to assess grasslands from space … It worked in some ways and not in others," said Phil Shephard of TNC. What worked well was distinguishing major vegetation types and delineating water, roads, and buildings. What was more difficult was assessing the condition of the vegetation, such as distinguishing old fields dominated by non-native pasture grasses from adjacent, intact native prairie.

Reaching consensus on scientific matters wasn’t always easy, according to Shephard. "Any time you try to do science with a large group, it's quite challenging because you've got a whole bunch of different people giving input on methods and monitoring and data sheets and everything else… It's a lot easier to just go out and do it by yourself." But in the long run, doing the science as a group paid off. It built strong community support, essential to the success of subsequent implementation.

And finally, the group felt pressure from above—mostly from the Forest Service regional office—to move faster. It's not the fault of local groups that they don't get more done more quickly according to Brownscombe. "What very few people recognize is the only reason more is not coming out of this process right now is because the agency does not have the funding to move more on the ground right now. They're understaffed, and they're underfunded in critical budget areas that are needed to move these projects … Were it not for funding and staffing deficiencies, there'd be more fish habitat restored, more grasslands restored, and more jobs created than is happening now," Brownscombe said.

He worries that a continued lack of investment in collaboration will doom the future of collaborative natural resource management. “We have a list [of projects]. And if it doesn't happen, I worry the Forest Service will lose confidence in collaborative approaches and want to go back to old-school, more top-down, 'let's just dictate what we're gonna do here' approaches, instead of letting the public tell the public agency what the public wants it to do,” Brownscombe said. "It's a really critical time for the direction of the agency on stewardship contracting and comprehensive collaboration and restoration.”

For more information see:

Wallowa Resources Upper Joseph Creek Project

Nez Perce Tribe Salmon Recovery Plan

Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

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