Editorial: Protecting the waterways

From The Register Guard: April 4, 2016

The McKenzie River Trust has finalized purchase from Rosboro Lumber Company of 122 acres of riverfront land along the McKenzie River. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard)

The McKenzie River Trust has finalized purchase from Rosboro Lumber Company of 122 acres of riverfront land along the McKenzie River. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard)

The McKenzie River Trust has added another 122 acres to the more than 2,000 acres it already holds in trust for Oregonians. This time, the trust had its eye on a piece of land just across the McKenzie River from another recent acquisition, 156 acres of riverfront land it bought in December.

The trust acquired both properties from Springfield-based Rosboro, a wood products company, for $775,000 apiece — a total of $1.55 million.

Considering that the small organization’s annual budget is about $3 million, it was a major expenditure. But the trust is a uniquely Oregon organization that has created a template for success .

The trust initially had one mission: protecting the McKenzie River, Eugene’s source of drinking water, from harmful development, thus preserving its water quality for future generations.

Over the next quarter-century, the mission grew to include protecting critical habitat and scenic lands in the McKenzie basin; the watersheds of the Long Tom, Willamette, Umpqua and Siuslaw rivers; and coastal streams and lakes from Reedsport to Yachats.

The trust does so on a minuscule budget by forming strategic partnerships, mobilizing a volunteer cadre, leveraging limited funds and knowing its territory better than anyone. If there is a piece of land in the area that is critical habitat or part of an important riparian zone, it’s on the trust’s wish list.

To get these parcels off the wish list and under protection, the trust relies on a small staff, corporate and nonprofit partners, and hundreds of volunteers who devote lots of time and moderate amounts of money.

It has a core group of about three dozen corporate partners, mainly local companies with a strong environmental bent. These include food and financial firms, real estate companies, retailers, breweries, manufacturers and tech companies.

By national standards, these are small donors; many contribute less than $5,000 a year. But the trust has grown skillful in leveraging donations and bidding for grants. “Every $1 you donated … helped us secure $12 in grants from state and federal funders and private foundations,” the trust told supporters in a recent report.

It used donations and a low-­interest loan in its most recent purchase. The Eugene Water & Electric Board — which likes to protect its water supply — provided $250,000 for conservation and restoration.

It helps that the trust has a reputation for frugality: About 75 percent of its budget goes for land protection and land and easement stewardship, only 12 percent for administration.

It has built a solid reputation over the decades with both environmental groups and private landowners, using a collaborative rather than confrontational approach. As a result, many of the trust’s acquisitions have come because it was approached by timber companies and other landowners aware of its interest in sensitive areas.

The trust’s role in protection and stewardship of critical land will become more important in the years and decades to come. Protection for those latest acquisitions seems like a good idea now; in a century, it will seem extraordinarily far-sighted.

The McKenzie River Trust provides a reliable promise that many critical lands and waterways will be protected long after today’s Lane County residents are gone. Under private, and even government, ownership, these sensitive areas could otherwise some day be sold or developed to meet changing needs or priorities.

The trust has undertaken to protect these areas in perpetuity, for the good of all. May it long continue, for the benefits will steadily increase.

Read the original editorial.