The business of taking care of wetlands

By: Justin Much - Apr 24, 2017
Source: Statesman Journal

Driving around familiar rural Turner/Marion stomping grounds on a mid-April weekday, Luke Fitzpatrick pointed to Duckflat Road and underscored the gravel drive’s good condition as a unique testimonial to wetlands protection.

In what has been a comparatively wet winter and spring season, the road has seen almost seamless open passage relative to previous years when flooding issues would frequently force road closures.

Fitzpatrick said Duckflat closures this year have probably amounted to a total of about 6 hours.

That’s one peripheral windfall to the work he and his mom, Kathy Bridges, are doing with their Santiam Valley Ranch area acreage off Hunsaker Road.

Collectively, their efforts stretch into management of neighboring properties, adding up to more than 400 acres that include the regional flyway for migrating geese and other waterfowl and favorable habitat for native flora and fauna indigenous to the Mid-Willamette Valley.

Coinciding with the family’s eco-friendly vision is a recent purchase of 80 acres of savanna white oak, acreage they envision as a contributor to the area’s riparian health. A number of processes can help facilitate this, including the attainment of a conservation easement or covenant.

In early April the Bridges Foundation formally announced its intention of protecting the savanna, described as a regionally rare habitat type in the Willamette Valley. The project was financed by Craft3 with bridge capital from Portland-based Meyer Memorial Trust.

The Foundation, originally formed by Jack and Nancy Bridges in 1987, is dedicated to improving the quality of life for young adults and those challenged with disabilities, among others, while engaging in a range of ecosystem protection and habitat restoration activities.

Kathy Bridges is now executive director and trustee of the foundation and oversees the work with her three sons as trustees.

Bridges describes Craft3 as an “innovative lender,” that strives to “help unusual people and habitat.”

That works well with the intentions at Santiam Valley Ranch.

"Our work on the property has changed through the years as we've learned more about the land, diversifying when possible and prioritizing what the land conveys to us,” Bridges said. “Not all land was meant to be agricultural. The soils and water-holding capacity told us that the land wanted to remain wetland, so we shifted our goals in some areas from cropland to agritourism.

“We have prioritized our best land for farming which now includes aquaculture, wild rice and lamb production, and organically certified crops. We are encouraged by people reaching out to us to learn how we got started with wetlands restoration and what we will learn as we transition 18 acres of organically certified sweet corn and beans into organic industrial hemp production."

Fitzpatrick, a 2004 Cascade High School graduate, studied forest management at Oregon State University. He worked for the U.S. Geological Survey and Oregon Department of Forestry as a wildlife biologist prior to undertaking his aquaculture business and managing the farm lands.

The addition of the savanna white oaks fits well with that management.

He cites BLM sources showing that less than one percent of the protected oak is within public lands, such as parks, putting the vast majority of it in private hands.

“The key for our situation is that (99 percent) of all potential oak habitat is owned by private landowners; so if anybody wants to protect it, it has to be landowners,” Fitzpatrick said.

The 80 acres coming into his custody almost had a different fate.

“Literally, it was actually in escrow to loggers,” he said. “They intended to clear cut it and put it into hazelnuts.”

The livestock previously raised on the land helped protect it by grazing off shrubbery and young trees that could have crimped the oaks healthy growth.

When the property was up for sale, and after they determined it would work well with their aims, Bridges and Fitzpatrick set out to secure financing from a traditional lender, but the bank turned down their request.

Bridges contacted Kelley Beamer, executive director of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts (COLT), hoping that she could suggest a program or different lender.

“When I got Kathy’s call, I knew how frustrated she was,” Beamer said. “It can be very difficult for small trusts and foundations to get funding quickly for time-sensitive projects. I knew from her description of the property that it was a special place that needed protection.”

And a good fit for Craft3.

“Craft3 has been a strong partner to COLT on conservation lending in the past and I was sure they could help the Bridges Foundation,” Beamer added.

After visiting Santiam Valley Ranch, Craft3 senior lender Brad Hunter concurred.

“Helping the Bridges Foundation secure their vision for local, grassroots conservation, is a type of investment that few traditional lenders would ever risk,” Hunter said. “But it’s exactly the kind of project that Craft3 looks for and is proud to support.”

Back at the savanna, Fitzpatrick and Bridges slog through sludgy grounds amid livestock-sheltering out buildings before trekking through the environs of their new charge. A spring day provides newly seen plant growth and assessments of other phenomena, such as the freshwater buildup in a previously dry spur of Marion Creek, complements of a beaver Fitzpatrick spotted and the critter’s dam work.

Surveying the vegetation – even the native poison oak – is a welcome task at these infant stages of caring for this land.

“That little walk surprised me,” Fitzpatrick said, revealing how he finds something new each pass through. “It will be good to find a productive use for this land.”

“And to find use you can feel good about,” Bridges added.