Finding Common Ground in the Harney Basin

OWEB Invests In Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative. 

On Tuesday January 27 2016, The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) recognized the diverse Harney Basin Wetland Initiative Partnership with a $1.6 million Focused Investment Partnership grant to improve habitat values and water quality at Malhuer Lake, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding ranchlands. The Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative includes ranchers and farmers, the Burns Paiute Tribe, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, conservation groups and many other stakeholders who have been working together since 2011 to develop a positive, collaborative path forward at Malheur and on the surrounding landscape.

For The Wetlands Conservancy, the relationship solidified when four ranchers invited me to talk with them about flood irrigation in the hope we might have a common vision.  Flood irrigation, which is commonly used on private ranchlands in Harney County, is a method of irrigating crops where water is pumped or brought to the fields and allowed to flow across the ground.  It only took a few minutes to find a common appreciation of the benefits that spring flood irrigation provides to both ranching operations and the millions of water birds that stop, feed and rest on their migration north. Harney Basin wetlands and Malheur Lake are among the most important places on the continent for migratory birds, supporting more than 320 species of birds.

With success on the first topic, we cautiously dug a little deeper and explored other shared views. After sharing stories, jokes and occasional ribbing, (after all, they are ranchers from Eastern Oregon and I am a conservationist from the Willamette Valley) we recognized a shared love, awe and respect for the landforms, wetlands, water, birds, wildlife and human inhabitants of the Harney Basin. This shared respect for the land and the value it brings to the people and wildlife led to brainstorming some wetland and water system restoration and enhancements ideas and projects. Several weeks later, we took some of our new ideas and common visions back to the diverse group of partners who had been working together since 2009 on a collaborative Malheur Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). Very quickly we recognized that through the CCP process, we had all learned to listen to one another, more clearly identify our commonalities, more respectfully share and discuss our differences and forge new ideas and solutions.

In parallel with the CCP process and the birth of the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, there were days spent in the field, ranch visits, phone calls and burgers, beer and bourbon at The Pine Room. Through the years of the CCP process the partners have created a new language that supports our common visions. Gary Marshall Harney County rancher and collaborator sums it up well. “The result of this effort goes far beyond the measurable benefits to the resources.  There are now lasting relationships, built on trust, which will make some truly great things possible here in Harney County.”

The infusion of resources from OWEB is re-energizing all of the partners’ passion and commitment to our common vision. We are excited to roll up our sleeves and begin the next chapter of on-the-ground lake and wetland enhancement and improvement projects that will improve both the ecological health of the landscape and the rural economy of Harney County.

-Esther Lev, Executive Director, The Wetlands Conservancy

15 thoughts on “Finding Common Ground in the Harney Basin

  1. Phil Quarterman says:

    Esther, I knew about to OWEB grant (through a recent post by Ken Bierly) but was not aware of the Wetlands Conservancy work in Harney County. This is a great piece and deserves to ‘go viral’ nationwide, even worldwide, as the other side of the story after recent events on the Malheur.

    Just curious, BTW, where were the Hammonds in all this? Involved, uninvolved, in favor, opposed? The answer to this question would provide some great perspective on recent events.

    1. Kendra Manton says:

      Thanks Phil!

    2. Peggy Johnson says:

      Yes Phil Quarterman that was my question. Did the Hammonds participate in this.

  2. Heather Chapin says:

    Proud of you Esther, for stressing the importance here of listening to one another and identifying our commonalities! Keep up the good work!

  3. Manuela Huso says:

    This is very inspiring and I think is some of what Georgia Marshall talked about having worked so hard to achieve and feeling so sad to potentially lose. She talked about an earlier time when a rancher couldn’t even be in the same room (or bar) as a range con. For a conservationist to share burgers, beer and bourbon at the Pine Room with ranchers is a huge step forward and not too many people besides Esther could have achieved that! Hopefully this “other side of the story” will be heard.

    1. Kendra Manton says:

      Thank you! We feel honored to be part of the good work going on out in Harney County.

  4. Jess Wenick says:

    Esther (and TWC) is a critical, highly valued partner of the collaborative effort occurring within the Harney Basin. Her work in helping bridge any remaining cultural gaps between interest groups has been essential in moving forward with the unique land management model we have all created together with the help of the High Desert Partnership. Well done, Esther (TWC)!

    1. Kendra Manton says:

      Thank you Jess!

  5. Clay Crofton says:

    That sounds great! I would enjoy rolling up my sleeves and assisting “on the ground” in Harney County. Are there any pending volunteer opportunites? Who would have additional information?

    1. Courtney Wilson says:

      Hi Clay,

      Thank you so much for your engagement and interest in the issues on the ground in Harney County.

      At the current moment, since the refuge is still under occupation, it is unsafe and there is no on the ground work for volunteers. The folks who you would want to get in touch with are from the ONDA, or the Oregon Natural Desert Association, or Oregon Wild. They have been the groups organizing when there are opportunities to get involved. It is likely that they have off-site volunteer opportunities for you until things cool off at the refuge. Good luck finding some great work to do to help out in Harney County! Let us know if you have any other questions.

  6. Richard Weinhold says:

    Thanks for your upbeat news on Harney County and wildlife. It is obvious that a great deal of care has gone into the long process leading to the agreement and grant. It is hoped that the participation of local landowners and organizations are examples of why the Bundy Boys and their friends did not receive the open-armed welcome they hoped for in their recent insurrection and takeover of the Malheur Refuge.

    Unfortunately the announcement was actually too low key (the occupation was not even mentioned!). Even the people commenting have avoided the elephant in the room.

    I would suggest revving up the publicity and bringing the big news organizations into the loop- showing the other side of community action and benefits to all as compared to the Bundys’ approach. Their assault on national, community, and environmental values needs to be further exposed for what it is- a cult of Wild West throwbacks uninterested in stewardship of the very land that supports them. We taxpayers have in fact been supporting the Bundy Boys and their ilk bigtime while they proclaim themselves the self-appointed guardians of freedom. Their little exercise has cost the taxpayers in many ways- destruction of facilities, lost wages, and insulting rather than respecting the members and cultures in the area.

    I would also like to know more about how the flooding plan works. Presumably the reason it is needed is that historic water dispersal over the area (i.e. natural flooding) has been interrupted by the channeling and water management systems accompanying farming and ranching activities over the last 100+ years. My guess (but no further details were enumerated in the article) is that seasonal changes in water management will result in the reflooding (and consequently wildlife and vegetation changes) for the area. Can you tell us more about “how it works”?

    1. Kendra Manton says:

      Thank you for your thoughts. If you are looking for more detailed information please look at the High Desert Partnership’s website http://highdesertpartnership.org/

  7. Mary Forst says:

    I’m so glad to hear of the grant which supports the wonderful work that’s been going on in Harney County! Thank you, Esther and all who are working on this.

    I do want to add some information that is, sadly, often missing from stories like this, about former “enemies” who are able to bridge suspicions and form honest working relationships: the role of the skilled conflict facilitator/mediator. In this case, my friend and colleague Jamie Damon.

    Jamie worked with this process 2008 – 2011 when the USFWS adopted the final CCP. This is the project that built the collaborative capacity and relationships that helped SageGrouse and the wetlands initiative go so well. Peter Harkema from Oregon Consensus at PSU also facilitated some of the meetings.

    I think it’s important to let people know that the help of a skilled, neutral facilitator/mediator is available to make building relationships across historic and strongly held differences possible.

    Mary Forst

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