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How Landowners Helped Save the Rogue

One conservation organization is turning to digitized data to restore Oregon’s Rogue River.

BySarah ScolesNOVA NextNOVA Next
How Landowners Helped Save the Rogue

Bill Leavens was one of the chosen ones.

Leavens owns a 125-acre plot that sits beneath Lower Table Rock, a volcanic plateau from which a mythical creature might overlook the valley and say, “It is good.” Leavens, who, before retirement, ran an aggregate mining company, had long struggled to manage his riverfront acreage. When he looked out at his section of the Rogue, he saw Himalayan blackberries standing 12 feet tall along its banks. The unchecked fruit choked out the trees. Choked out everything, really.

Then came Eugene Wier’s knock at his door, offering to rip out those bushes, and replace them with around 2,500 linear feet of trees—cottonwood, elderberry.

“Why me?” Leavens asked.

“I’m not just here because you’re a nice guy,” Wier said. “I’m here because you’re the right person.”

Mapping Medford

It all began in 2011, when Medford, Oregon, had a water problem. The local wastewater treatment plant was shooting 26 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water back into the Rogue River every day. That water was clean, sure—but it was warm. It sounds like a minor issue—compared with raw sewage, a bit of warm water doesn’t seem like a big deal. But just as pouring newly hot coffee into a tepid cup makes the formerly tepid part less tepid, adding the warm once-wastewater back in increased the river’s heat. That cut down on the oxygen levels, making fish eggs hatch earlier than they should. If city politicians did nothing to offset the warmth, the increase would leave them in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The city considered a cooling tower—a steaming, nuclear-looking monstrosity—or a holding pond in which the water could dissipate its heat skyward before flowing into the river. But both of those were expensive and synthetic. A nonprofit, the Freshwater Trust, presented a more palatable idea: planting shade trees along the Rogue, whose shadow-slinging would cool the water.

If city politicians did nothing to offset the warmth, the increase would leave them in violation of the Clean Water Act.

After the city bit, the Freshwater Trust developed a tool called BasinScout. Today, it hoovers in data—from soil samples to bank angles to satellite images—and exhales a color-coded map that shows how restoration efforts (like lining shade trees along the Rogue) could affect the liquid around a given plot of land. BasinScout allowed them to pinpoint “red” areas—land ripest for restoration. And then they called in a local, Eugene Wier.

Wier is always out on Oregon’s Rogue River—floating, fishing, and managing the restoration projects that dot its banks. Though Medford is the fourth-largest metro area in the state, most of the land around it is rural, a Crayola box of green laid down along the Rogue River in between mountains. The Portland-based Freshwater Trust plucked Wier—a plaid-shirt-and-sleepy-smile kind of guy—from other restoration work and asked him to manage their projects in the Southern part of the state. They needed someone local who loved the Rogue, and who locals knew loved the Rogue, to manage their projects.

“I’d been doing what we’d call quote-unquote traditional restoration,” he says, “Applying for grants, finding a willing landowner,” since the property in question often belongs to private citizens. The grants usually lasted three years, and then the landowner was on their own. “Those projects often fell back into the bushes,” Wier says. He hated that. He has parental feelings about the projects. “I want to see them grow up and graduate,” he says.

The Trust, though, would give him these BasinScout maps, with their ribbons of color, and the promise to support each restoration project for 20 years.

He said yes, and then took a look at those maps, which showed where some strategic planting could have the best chilling effects. Wier knew he had to be strategic in choosing which landowners to approach first. He was going to be asking a lot when he knocked on their doors: not just to change the shape of their land but to access it for two decades.

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Eugene Wier, Restoration Project Manager based in Ashland, stakes a sign alerting the public of restoration in progress along the Leavens property in southern Oregon.

Whoever said “yes” first could help convince others to sign on. “People are going to do it for a lot of reasons,” Wier says. “But the first person has to be someone who believes in this.”

When he looked at his list, he knew which of the potential landowners might be willing to suspend disbelief long enough to let some trees grow: Bill Leavens, a former mine operator and businessman who’d been to local river restoration meetings before.

Wier didn’t know Leavens well, but well enough. “He’s authentic,” Wier says. “He’s business-oriented. He’s not just a tree hugger. If he likes this, other guys are going to like this and notice.”

So Wier went to knock on Leavens’s door—armed with cartographic evidence that this was the right place to be.

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Digitizing Data

The motivation for BasinScout actually came about because Medford was so big, and so spread out. There were hundreds of potential landowners to approach, and the Trust couldn’t—at least not cost-effectively—knock on every door. They needed to up their efficiency. They needed to find the right people, like Leavens.

So they turned to digitized data. BasinScout’s current incarnation can pull in satellite and other aerial images, soil samples, and laser-based mapping data from airplanes. After feeding it all to BasinScout, the team can look at how newly planted trees, once mature and fully shady, can affect rivers and streams.

Such a data-driven approach is not strictly novel. “Watershed assessments in and of themselves are nothing new,” says Julia Bond, The Freshwater Trust’s science director. “People have been doing them for decades.” But what sets BasinScout apart is its focus on individual landowners, and how their their restoration contributions can sum to a greater whole.

BasinScout, in other words, turns big-picture digital data into detailed portraits that people can make sense of. And for the Trust, it makes finding those people easier. “Rather than knock on hundreds of doors to find the half dozen, we can start with 20 or 30,” says Denis Reich, the organization’s recruitment and Southern Oregon director.

Leavens didn’t say yes right away. “It was a little intimidating,” he says. “I was basically giving them access to the river frontage for 20 years.”

This Portland organization wanted to come in and do what they would with his land—his land—for an awfully long time.

BasinScout turns big-picture digital data into detailed portraits that people can make sense of.

He thought their idea was exciting (and he wanted someone else to deal with his blackberries), but Leavens wasn’t sure he could trust them—to do what they said or to continue existing as a functional organization for 20 years. How could he address every concern, when he couldn’t see the future, in a contract?

Leavens talked to his lawyer, and, in words that perhaps have never come out of any other attorney’s mouth, was told that he had to put some trust in people. “You’re not going to get everything in an agreement,” the lawyer said.

Leavens followed the unconventional legal advice. And the Freshwater Trust soon hired local labor to come plant the 6,900 trees from a nearby nursery.

Investing in Trust

And with that, Leavens became the Freshwater Trust’s man on the inside, which helped the Trust recruit other landowners. If Leavens trusted the Trust, the reasoning went, maybe it was okay to let hippie-nonprofit Portlanders onto their property for the next 20 years. Plus, the other guy, Wier, was local. He loved the river. People—the kind who’d been there forever and the kind who moved there just for the prettiness and recreation—perhaps thought they could trust him with their land.

It worked. Other people trusted the Trust.

Wier is currently working with Leavens’s downstream neighbors. After Leavens first signed on, five or so years ago, Wier knocked on their door, too. But they weren’t interested. They’d seen mediocre restoration projects that were left to wither with little to show for results.

Today, though, the neighbors look with some envy upstream at Leavens’s property, which was once tangled with weeds but, five years after planting, is now flush with 10- to 30-foot-tall native trees.

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Native plants installed by The Freshwater Trust alongside the Applegate River, a 51 tributary of the Rogue in Oregon.

The Trust, with the help of BasinScout and a lot of digging, has planted some 50,000 trees along the Rogue River since that first one plopped into a hole on Leavens’s property. And, in general, the recruitment wasn’t as difficult as Reich thought it might be. That’s in part because land along Rogue has ballooned in price—thanks to Californians moving in with their tech millions and staring, removed from the rat race, at the eye-soothing land that someone used to farm. “Most of the landowners have never heard of a cow or milked one,” Reich says, mostly joking. “They’re attorneys or tech guys or entrepreneurs, and they want their slice of heaven.”

But Patient Zero—Leavens—is not one of those Californians. And he was one of the most skeptical Reich says he’s seen. He’d be the first to tell you, he says, if the Freshwater Trust’s work wasn’t successful. But so far it has been.

And Leavens is optimistic that it will be into the future. Part of that comes from the long-future investment the Trust promises. But it also comes from the data the group used to back their initial decisions, data that includes satellite imagery. Our view of the Earth from above is increasing by terabytes every day. There are hundreds more Earth observation satellites in orbit around Earth than there were just a few years ago. All of this imagery reveals land and water as they are right now, how they were a week or a year ago, and how they’ll be tomorrow. With airplane and field-gathered data, and there’s almost too much information.

But it’s better than having too little. And the plan takes ground truth, literally, into account. The Trust’s people trekked on and off Leavens’s land periodically, poking and prodding and digging and measuring each year to check its status. Leavens was initially wary, but now he’s glad for that. “They assess the site and make modifications to their plan on an ongoing basis rather than planting it and just talking about the great things they did,” he says.

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Photos courtesy The Freshwater Trust