Oregon’s watershed councils were formed in the crucible of environmental conflict. In the early 1990s, the northern spotted owl and coastal coho had been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and farmers, ranchers, and timber companies found themselves glaring through an ugly barbed-wire fence at environmentalists glaring back.
Many people were skeptical that voluntary, collective, local efforts to restore salmon habitat could solve these tough problems, when harder methods like regulations and lawsuits were apparently doing little good.
At the time even Paul Heikkila had his doubts. Why should watershed councils be anything but another forum for futile wrangling, he wondered? Why should people with deep and bitter disagreements decide to tear down fences just because they lived in the same watershed?
What gave him hope, ironically, was that nothing else was working. “It was the conflict that created a solution,” says Heikkila, a long-time Oregon State University Extension agent in Coos County. “We had people from timber, agriculture, farming and grazing, and the environmental community, and they weren’t talking to each other, and nothing was getting done. How do we get through that conflict, past the standoffs? That was the genesis.”
Heikkila has been working with watershed neighbors in Coos County for more than 20 years, helping them reach past their differing views and interests and find common ground in the watersheds they share.
It was slow going at first. “In one early meeting,” he recalls, “we had one person from a large industrial timber company and another from a state agency. They were both sitting at the table, and they wouldn’t talk to each other. They talked through me—I was the go-between.” It was obvious that they wanted to communicate, he says, but the situation was delicate. Choosing his timing, Heikkila got up and left the room at what he hoped was the right moment. “I said, ‘You don’t need me here,’ and I left.” They talked.
The first efforts to gather Coos County neighbors around common problems began in 1983, when water quality and declining fish stocks were becoming an urgent concern of Oregonians. With funding from the state’s Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program and other sources, landowners began getting together to plant trees along streams running through cow pastures and to place dead logs into forest streams to improve the fish habitat.
In 1993 the legislature provided funds to local watershed organizations to pay for such projects and also to recruit paid staff. “That was a crucial catalyst,” says Heikkila. Coos County’s three watershed associations were among the state’s first councils. Now there are about 90 independent watershed councils across Oregon, some of which share staff and other resources. The legislature officially recognized watershed councils in 1995. Two years later the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds adopted local, nonregulatory, voluntary actions as a key strategy to improve the condition of local watersheds. Watershed councils have become the main mechanism for carrying out that strategy.
“Watershed councils are known for their diversity, both within themselves and across the state,” says John Moriarty, statewide coordinator for the Network of Oregon Watershed Councils, an organization that helps watershed councils build capacity. “These councils are a place where a lot of tough issues are hashed out” among people of different opinions and interests, he says. “Most of them operate by consensus, as do we. Because, ideally, everybody wants a win-win.”
So far, watershed councils seem to be a winning strategy. A tenth-anniversary assessment from the University of Oregon gave watershed councils an A+ for the good things they’re doing for Oregon’s landscape and communities.The assessment found that each state grant dollar spent on watershed restoration projects brings in another five dollars from other sources, and most of that money stays in the community. Watershed councils also build community capacity by educating people about watersheds and working together effectively, by increasing cooperation and trust among neighbors, and by encouraging more citizen involvement in natural resource decisions.
Paul Heikkila remembers one dairy farmer up the Coquille who at first had nothing but scorn for the nascent watershed council in his neighborhood. “He’d lived on the river all his life, and he didn’t believe in any of this newfangled stuff,” says Heikkila. “But he had a nice dairy farm and he took good care of it. We’d go out to his place and sit on stumps and discuss the world.” Finally the farmer, still skeptical, started coming to meetings. “Pretty soon he was coming to every meeting.”
What changed his mind? “I don’t think he changed his mind about anything until the day he died,” says Heikkila. “But he did change his behavior. He fenced his land to keep the cows out of the river. He participated in restoration projects, because he could see this was something that worked.”