This interview ran in the March 23, 2017 online edition of Portland Business Journal.
By Pete Danko, Staff Reporter
The Western Rivers Conservancy has a great tagline — “Sometimes to save a river, you have to buy it” — although it does require a quick caveat for the literal-minded reader: No, you can’t actually buy a river.
But you can buy the land that surrounds it, and that’s what the Portland-based organization does, in the process protecting river ecosystems in 11 Western states: Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
We talked this week with Sue Doroff, a co-founder of the conservancy and its president, about how the group pursues its mission. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What is it that makes rivers so important to focus on? Rivers are the lifeblood of an ecosystem. We think of them as the keystone element of an ecosystem. Without a river, the ecosystem would fail. Fish depend on it, wildlife depend on it, they depend on each other, and so it’s not just water that needs to be cold and clear and free-flowing, but it’s the habitat that sustains that river system that has to be healthy and connected and robust.
You can’t save all the rivers that are endangered. How do you pick your targets? We come at it from the perspective of what is strategically critical. We’re not interested in buying every acre of landscape. But what acre or acres will make a difference throughout the system? That’s the question we ask. And we look for the trifecta: where it’s going to benefit fish, where it’s going to benefit wildlife, and where it’s going to benefit people with recreation and access.
What’s an example of the trifecta in action? Look at our John Day River project, which is now known as Cottonwood Canyon State Park. The John Day is the longest undammed river West of the Rockies and it has critical anadromous species in it and some species that depend only on the Lower John Day. There was this ranch that had been beat up in its prior ownership that was available for sale and needed someone who would step in and act quickly and save it. The John Day is an amazing fishery and an amazing place to hunt and there’s very little public land that you can get to. There’s public land along the river, but it’s really hard to get to because there’s private land around it. And so for us to be able to deliver water for the river when it needs it, and access for fishing and hunting when appropriate, it’s an amazing thing.
And you didn’t hold onto it — it became a state park. Oregon Parks and Rec Department became our partner and acquired the ranch from us and it has opened what’s really its first wild park, a park that’s intended to be lightly developed and intended to enhance habitat and deliver access.
Is this typical, to transfer the property to a government entity? Exactly. The idea is that there are critically important areas, and they might only be 10 acres, and we are able to come in and in a businesslike manner, acquire a piece of property from a willing seller for a fixed price. Then we’re able to work with whomever should be the long-term steward. Could be a federal or state agency, a tribe, a land trust. So we have short-term funding, bridge funding, and then we have time and patience to find funding for the right steward to manage it forever. And that’s very important: We are interested in permanence.