Ecology and economy, hand in hand

By ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald June 16, 2010 11:19 am
Report finds that watershed restoration projects can benefit the environment as well as the local economy

Environmental benefits have long been the focus of forest and watershed restoration projects, but a new study unveiled during a recent meeting of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board in Baker City sheds light on economic factors, including the creation of 163 full-time jobs with watershed councils across the state.

 “We’ve come a long way from the volunteer watershed boards and part-time or volunteer directors we had 10 years ago,” said Cassandra Moseley, a representative director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program (EWP) at the University of Oregon, which conducted the economic analysis.

In addition to jobs and watershed councils and soil and water conservation districts involved in planning, applying for grants, awarding grants and overseeing forest and watershed projects, much of the on-the-ground work is carried out by contractors, which benefits local economies and small family businesses even more than traditional public works projects such as building highways and bridges, according to Moseley’s report.

She said 188 of 190 contractors interviewed by EWP that contracted to do forest and watershed restoration work identified themselves as small family businesses averaging between two and seven employees.

While the timber industry that once employed thousands of people in rural Oregon has been decimated, Moseley said some of those traditional jobs related to forest harvests have been replaced by restoration work.

“There is a transition in work toward ecological restoration and away from logging and tree planting,” she said. “Transitions are always hard, and it takes time and money and equipment, but contractors said they realize they need to make the transition to keep working.”

Max Nielsen-Pincus, a researcher associated with EWP, said the study found that about 16 jobs representing $600,000 in wages are created in local economies for every $1 million in grants awarded by OWEB.

Between 1997 and 2009, $170 million in forest and watershed restoration grants awarded by OWEB generated a $400 million economic impact as those funds circulated though local economies, Nielsen-Pincus said.

He said EWP analyzed 100 grants and related purchase and contractor data and found that for every $1 million in restoration grants awarded, $2.3 million in economic activity is created by SWCDs and watershed councils from instream and upland projects.

The study found that investments in public infrastructure projects and ecological improvement projects create about the same number of jobs per $1 million invested as highway and publicly funded construction projects. The latter generally employ workers who come from outside the area and take most of their income with them when they leave.

By contrast, the EWP study found that 60 percent of the wages and other expenditures of OWEB grants stay in the county where the work is done.

Moseley said the study raises an interesting political question about whether the economy, both local and national, would benefit more from “green” projects such as forest restoration and  watershed enhancement, or from traditional asphalt-and-concrete infrastructure.

Jennifer Phillippi, an OWEB member, asked whether conflicts persist between those interested in traditional logging jobs and those who promote restoration work.

In response, Moseley said that many of the local contractors who do OWEB-funded restoration work are former timber workers.

That’s logical, she said, because both types of work require similar skills such as operating heavy equipment or falling trees.

In other business at the Baker City meeting, OWEB Executive Director Tom Byler reported on the 2011-2013 budget process and the potential staffing cuts that may be needed to meet Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s 9 percent budget trimming.

While communications is critical to winning over public support for restoration work during a down economy, Byler said having the words public relations or communications in a job title is “the kiss of death.”

Byler said OWEB stands to lose an important communications position and several others that he said are critical to the board, including a planned ecosystem coordinator position.

“If we can’t go into the next legislative session and talk about how we are doing work more efficiently, we will be in a world of hurt,” Byler said.

Byler said he plans to ask for $1 million in additional funding for local watershed councils, as well as $1 million more for local SWCDs.

On the positive side, he said more federal money related to threatened and endangered species activities is expected to bolster the OWEB budget.

Byler said at the federal level, there’s more talk about the economic benefits of restoration work, and that aspect is rising to the top when it comes to allocating money.

From that perspective, Byler said the EWP study should help OWEB make its case for federal and state funds, especially for increased funding for watershed councils and SWCDs.

Dan Heagerty of the OWEB board said that as a citizen he is concerned about the agency spending more and more on staffing and less for restoration projects that benefit salmon and other endangered fish.

“We are pushing work down into communities. The districts and watershed councils are doing a lot of work we would not be doing without them,” Byler said. “This recognizes that.”

As part of OWEB’s two-day meeting June 2-3, the board was treated to a tour of watershed restoration projects in the Burnt River area south of Baker City.

At a stop in Durkee, Ken Diebel, riparian and outreach specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, explained how several projects in the area are focused on controlling juniper trees that are invading and choking out aspen stands.

“In one 40-acre aspen stand above Unity, OWEB is paying to help remove 40,000 juniper sprouts per acre,” Diebel said.

Richard D’Ewart, who ranches near Durkee, said he received several OWEB grants to do juniper control projects on 600 acres.

Diebel said elk, which eat aspen buds, are also damaging groves around Baker County. As part of a project in the Burnt River SWCD, the juniper trees that are cut down are stacked to create a barrier to keep the elk out.

Jim Young gave a presentation on the Powder Basin Watershed Council’s OWEB-funded study of options for controlling flooding in the Pine Valley.

“Out of the study to be completed this fall, we’ll identify a whole host of projects,” Young said.

(The timing of the meeting coincided with the start of a rainy stretch that caused the most severe flooding along Pine Creek in more than a quarter century.)

Tom Straughn, water quality specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said the Burnt River and its tributaries have been the target of quite a bit of OWEB grant funding aimed at improving fish habitat, as well as erosion control and juniper control.

The tour included a streambank stabilization project on Pritchard Creek, a tributary to the Burnt River, where Straughn said the landowner installed rip-rap made of cut juniper trees.

He said the rip-rap improves fish habitat,  “traps sediment, and you get willows growing in there.”

Juniper trees have many advantages over traditional rock rip-rap, said Josh Uriarte, agricultural field technician with the Baker County Association of Conservation Districts.

“Rock can heat up the water more because it absorbs the sunlight,” Uriarte said.

The tour also looked at the Banks Diversion on the Burnt River near Durkee, where an OWEB grant helped remove a push-up dam and replace it with a sill and flashboard type of diversion using a pre-cast concrete and metal structure filled with rock.

Uriarte said the Banks Diversion project improved water quality by reducing turbidity and also improved fish habitat and passage.

Uriarte said it also reduced maintenance costs while allowing irrigators to efficiently acquire their water for 1,200 acres irrigated from the river and Banks Ditch.

The tour also viewed the Moore diversion where an OWEB grant helped fund a concrete sill for irrigation of 800 acres. The sill has a 4-foot-wide notch for fish passage, which replaced an old pushup dam structure that blocked fish passage.

Current and future plans to manage lands to improve sage grouse habitat were also highlighted during the tour.

 “We looked at our sage grouse projects where we are applying for grants for juniper cutting and anti-strike markers so the sage grouse don’t hit fences,” Uriarte said.

Tourgoers also heard about some cross fencing projects aimed at managing grazing to improve sage grouse habitat, Uriarte said.