Of the Baker City Herald

The snowmelt surging down Pritchard Creek is frigid, the wind gusts whipping tiny whitecaps across its narrow channel nearly as cold.

And its hailing.

But the six students trudging along its banks and occasionally dunking a muddy boot when they step on a slippery spot seem not to care.

Theyre here on a chilly Friday, about as far from any town as you can get in Baker County, to plant willow trees.

Armloads of willow trees.

All are members of the Durkee 4-H club.

Their purpose in planting the willows is simple: The trees roots will solidify the soil, reducing erosion when summer cloudbursts send torrents down Pritchard Creeks narrow channel.

The willows will shade the water, too, keeping it cooler in summer to the benefit of the native redband trout that shelter in the deeper pools, said Clair Button, an ecologist from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management who is guiding the Durkee students efforts.

But stabilizing streambanks and shading trout are, it might be said, scientific goals.

The students have another, more elemental reason for enduring this winter-like spring weather.

Every one is from a family thats been ranching in these parts for five generations.

Theyre members of the sixth.

Their families have wrought a living out of these barren hills for more than a century, driving cattle every spring from their wintering grounds in the Burnt River lowlands to fatten on the bunchgrasses.

As Charlene Bunch sees things, planting these native willows is a way to guarantee the members of her generation and of those to follow can continue the tradition if they choose to try.

Its a good deal that were putting these trees back, said Bunch, 16, whos a junior at Baker High School. Its helping keep the water cool.

This is more than just make-work for ambitious students, though.

Button said the BLM plans to examine the Pritchard Creek grazing allotment this summer to see whether the three ranchers allowed to run their cattle here are meeting federal standards.

If not, the BLM could change the permits, reducing the number of animals the ranchers can graze, shortening the season, or both.

The 4-H willow-planting project is just one part of the effort to avoid such restrictions, said Dale Smull, who runs 150 head on the Pritchard Creek allotment from May 1 through July 15 and again from Oct. 1 through the end of November.

The two other permittees for Pritchard Creek are Bert Siddoway and Wayne Troy.

Smull said he intends to prove to BLM officials that the Pritchard Creek allotment is improving, that the uplands and the streamside areas are healthier than they used to be.

Were all working together to try to achieve that, Small said.

The Pritchard Creek allotment encompasses four pastures.

Smull said no cattle have grazed in the pasture that includes this reach of Pritchard Creek since a range fire swept through the area over the Labor Day weekend three years ago.

In the ensuing years a good crop of grass has sprouted.

But the key to holding the streambanks in place when the creek runs high, and to shading the water, are the willows.

Neither the ranchers nor the BLM have been able to bring back the trees since a catastrophic range fire scorched the whole area around 1941.

That blaze, which Smull said actually started miles away at Virtue Flat, destroyed all the big old native willows and cottonwoods that had formed a ribbon of green along the creeks serpentine path, Button said.

People replanted, and there was some natural regrowth as well, but cattle, deer, elk and antelope ate the young shoots before their roots could get a hold, he said.

But Small said the ranchers will try to protect the willows the 4-H students are planting by building fences to keep cattle from getting to the creek.

The west side is already fenced.

I think thisll work, Smull said. Weve got a lot of support from the government. (Button) has been a very big help.

As have the 4-Hers.

To reward the students, Smull and the other permittees will buy a new blow dryer the students can use to prepare their steers for the county fair.

The students will be glad to have it, Bunch said, but thats not why theyre thrusting willow shoots into the cold mud along Pritchard Creek.

The whole idea, she said, is to prove that cattle are compatible with fish, ranching with environmentalism, private business with government oversight.

It can all work together, Bunch said.

Besides, its not as if these kids would be home playing Nintendo were it a normal day.

Every single one of us is from a ranching family, Bunch said. We do this kind of work every day.

Its no big deal.