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SALEM — The Meyer Memorial Trust, which helped launch a sweeping environmental restoration effort 10 years ago with its Willamette River Initiative, has unveiled the blueprint for a new organization to take the reins of restoration work in the basin next year as the charitable foundation’s original funding commitment sunsets.

Plans for the new entity, to be called the Willamette River Network, were announced on Thursday at the start of a two-day conference on river restoration at the Salem Convention Center.

What remains unclear is where the money to finance future restoration projects will come from after Meyer and other major funding sources pull out.

“It won’t be easy,” CEO Michelle DePass said in her keynote address to the fifth biennial Within Our Reach conference. “We know that.”

But she reminded the 300 or so people in attendance how much has been accomplished since Meyer kicked off its initiative in 2008, when there were just two large-scale floodplain restoration projects underway on the Willamette mainstem. Last year, by comparison, there were 24.

“In 10 years, restoration progress has increased tenfold on the Willamette and its major tributaries,” DePass said.

“In the next decade, I challenge you to continue to grow this movement.”

Since 2008, the foundation has pumped more than $20 million into river restoration projects in the Willamette Basin, but its role as a significant underwriter of such work is scheduled to end early next year.

The other major funding partners — the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Bonneville Power Administration — have kicked in another $60 million-plus to date and continue to provide substantial financial support, but those funding streams also are expected to dry up, or at least slow down, over the next several years.

About a year ago, Meyer began laying the groundwork to help the watershed councils, land trusts and other conservation groups that have been doing restoration work in the Willamette Basin begin to take control of the overall effort from the funding agencies, and the opening sessions of this year’s Within Our Reach conference were very much about passing the baton.

“As we approach the end of the Willamette River Initiative, we face a significant reduction in Meyer grant funding that has been essential over the past decade,” said the initiative’s director, Allison Hensey, who spoke after DePass.

“It’s time to create an organization that can support your work, and all our work, over the long haul.”

Plans for the Willamette River Network, she said, were worked out over the past 12 months by a 17-member advisory group representing many of the big players in the river restoration effort. The new organization will have four main roles:

• Support collaborative planning and action.

• Bring new funding into the basin.

• Serve as a hub for information and learning.

• Raise the profile of Willamette restoration work.

Hensey said the goal was to select a board by next spring, hire a director by next summer and hold an annual meeting next December.

“The network will serve as a backbone organization to support all our collective work,” she said.

Hensey stressed that part of Meyer’s strategy in funding restoration efforts in the basin has been to increase the alignment of organizations involved in the work and to build the capacity of the organizations themselves.

She noted that many of those organization have gone from competing for grants to collaborating on large-scale restoration projects or even, as is in recently announced plans for the multi-tenant Confluence building in downtown Corvallis, sharing office space and other resources.

“Now there’s a culture of trust built on meaningful relationships,” she said. “I don’t think this would have been possible when this initiative began. This has been nothing short of a cultural sea change.”

Using the metaphor of an old growth forest where mature “hub trees” provide nutrients for younger trees through an underground root web that ties them all together, Hensey suggested that continued collaboration by participating organizations would allow the new network to flourish on its own.

“By working together, I hope we can achieve more impact (in the next 10 years) than we did over the last 10,” she said.

“If you come away from this conference with one single idea, let it be this: We’re stronger together.”

Meyer has pledged $2 million in transitional funding over the next three years to help the network get off the ground after the Willamette River Initiative sunsets in March.

Nevertheless, there’s still an undercurrent of unease in the restoration community as Meyer prepares to bow out.

As one conference attendee put it:

“When one of those big trees falls, it leaves a gap — and it can take a long time for the forest to recover.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald