BUENA VISTA - Ed Rust pointed the nose of his 18-foot fishing boat upstream and throttled down the outboard, holding steady against the current at the place where the Santiam and Luckiamute rivers flow into the Willamette.
"You can almost tell the difference in the water here," he said, nodding toward the Santiam side of the boat. "See how clear it is compared to the river over there?"
Rust knows this place well. Just downstream, a 90-foot sandstone bluff juts up from the water, fir trees crowding the edge. It's part of a 120-acre donation land claim south of Independence that used to be his grandfather's farm. Now it's his.
But it won't be farmland much longer. Rust recently sold the property's agricultural and development rights to the Greenbelt Land Trust. He made a similar deal on 200 acres he owns along the Little Willamette Slough just outside Albany.
Rust got a shade over
$1 million for both parcels. While he retains title, farming will be phased out. The land will be replanted with native vegetation and managed under a permanent conservation easement.
Rust is a general contractor, not a farmer, and he has no kids waiting to inherit the family farm. But he wanted to leave another kind of legacy - one that would preserve some of Oregon's wild heritage in a part of the state that is steadily urbanizing.
"When I'm gone, someone can look at this and say, ‘There's someplace for wildlife to use,'" he said. "And a hundred years from now, it won't be a parking lot."
Connecting the dots
The acquisition of the Buena Vista property represented a unique conservation opportunity in the Willamette Valley, said Cary Stephens, the Greenbelt Land Trust's board chairman.
"With the confluence of the three rivers coming in, you've got the influences of the Cascades and the Coast Range," Stephens said. "It's a hotspot for wildlife habitat."
Sensitive species in the area include the bald eagle, Western meadowlark, acorn woodpecker, Oregon vesper sparrow and Western pond turtle.
Another part of the appeal for Greenbelt was the location: a stone's throw from the Luckiamute State Natural Area, which already protects a swath of Willamette River floodplain.
"What we do is look at where actual restoration is going on and try to build off it," Stephens said.
Rust's other property offered a similar chance to connect some conservation dots along the river, Stephens said.
For one thing, it's just upstream from Bowers Rock State Park, another pocket of state-protected land along the Willamette on Albany's western edge. And running through both the park and Rust's land - as well as several other privately owned farms - is the Little Willamette Slough, an old flood channel that has been cut off from the Willamette mainstem by generations of human use.
The slough still fills with water in the winter, providing crucial habitat for waterfowl, beavers and Western pond turtles. Restoring its historic links with the main channel would extend those benefits to fish, Stephens said.
Migrating salmon and steelhead could use the slough as a place to rest on their long journey from the ocean to their headwaters spawning grounds. For their offspring, it would provide a refuge where they could bulk up before venturing out to sea, improving their chances of survival.
"The goal is to work with all the property owners so we can re-establish the connection," Stephens said.
Partners in conservation
It will take a dozen or more years, Stephens estimates, to convert Rust's land from ryegrass fields to riparian forest and oak woodland, wetland and savanna. It will also take a lot of money.
The good news is there is a host of programs willing to help.
The Bonneville Power Administration, for instance, provided the funding for the conservation easements. The federal power distribution agency has an obligation to do restoration work to replace wildlife habitat submerged by its network of hydroelectric dams.
Willamette Riverkeeper and the Meyer Memorial Trust are working with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and other state agencies on a project to reopen the Little Willamette Slough.
And both state and federal wildlife management agencies offer assistance to landowners who want to restore habitat on their property.
Rust has already worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to transform a low-lying section of his Buena Vista farm from a tractor-trapping mud wallow into a functional wetland.
"This was kind of a no-man's land (before)," he said. "In the winter, you might see three or four ducks. Now, when the water's high, you'll see hundreds, even thousands."
Flocks of Canada geese roost on the open water, Rust said, along with wood ducks, mallards, Northern shovelers, wigeons, teals and other waterfowl. A family of Virginia rails have taken up residence in the cattails that border his pond, and herons and egrets are frequent visitors.
To create the wetland, Rust took advantage of the federal Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which provides both financial support and technical expertise to private citizens who want to do restoration on their land.
Since its inception in 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program has completed more than 20,000 projects, restoring more than 3 million acres of upland and wetland habitat and 8,000 miles of riparian and in-stream habitat.
More than 470 of those projects are in Oregon, where some 45,000 acres of upland and wetland habitat and 1,300 miles of riparian and in-stream habitat have been restored.
"The program's been rolling in the valley since the late '90s," said Chris Seal, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist stationed at the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis. "It's really grown quite a bit in the last 10 years or so."
In the Willamette Valley, where roughly 96 percent of the land base is in private hands, these kinds of citizen-led efforts are vital, added Jock Beall, another federal biologist based at Finley.
"The refuges are just sort of postage stamps," Beall said. "For private landowners that have a stewardship ethic, this gives them the means to contribute to conservation and have an impact on the regional protection of species."
Converting the natives
Greenbelt wants to foster more such partnerships, and the group is hoping its relationship with Ed Rust will help as it expands beyond its Corvallis-area base.
The Buena Vista and Little Willamette easements represent Greenbelt's first foray outside Benton County, but they won't be the last. The nonprofit organization is already talking to other landowners up and down the valley, looking to fill the gap between the Three Rivers Land Trust in the Portland metro area and the McKenzie River Trust in Lane and Douglas counties.
Stephens acknowledges that the gospel of conservation can be a tough sell in rural areas but thinks Rust will be an effective evangelist. Once people realize he's a willing partner rather than the victim of a government land grab, their initial uneasiness tends to go away.
"He can be the best ambassador," Stephens said. "He can talk to the neighbors."
Joanne McLennan, a Greenbelt board member and longtime Tangent resident, says her Linn County neighbors are keeping a watchful eye on the restoration projects at Rust's property to see what it might mean for them.
Many of them are farmers, people with "a more traditional passion for the land" than city-dwelling environmentalists. It may take awhile, she said, but she thinks the conservation group will win them over eventually because they're really more alike than different.
"I believe in the principles of Greenbelt and I believe they are in line with basic Oregon principles - valuing farmland and keeping (sprawl) at bay," McLennan said.
"Whether it's farmland or natural land, it's still preserving the land to do what it's supposed to do. This is not like a developer coming in and saying I want to put 200 houses there."
That's how Rust sees it, too. He could have made "substantially more" money selling his two properties for development, he said - if money was what he wanted.
"But that wasn't my goal," he said. "Because then they'd just be gone."
Bennett Hall can be reached at 758-9529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.