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Reflecting on a decade of restoration partnerships

From building trust to best practices for paperwork, we think back on lessons learned after 10+ years of collaborative restoration

After ten years of coordinating investments of more than $10 million from five state and federal agencies and directing them to 160 community-based projects in our Focus Watersheds and generating an estimated 240, much-needed jobs primarily in rural areas, the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative (WWRI) this year is concluding its grant program.

The WWRI is a public partnership between the U.S. Forest Service’s PNW Region 6, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Ecotrust and nearly 100 community-based restoration organizations in the Pacific Northwest.

When we first launched the WWRI in 2005, only a few private funders, like the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, were targeting their financial and technical resources to priority watersheds. Annually, tens of millions of dollars of government funds were sprinkled around the region in what some refer to as “random acts of kindness” that were difficult to evaluate and link to measurable impacts on salmon populations.

A decade later, there has been a shift in the way many restoration grants are distributed — prioritizing projects at a local and regional scale is now the norm, not a novelty. OWEB’s Focused Investment Partnerships and the Wild Salmon Center’s Salmon Strongholds have supported a new partnership model in Salmon Nation. Private foundations also increasingly favor selecting priority watersheds where they can concentrate their impact.

The WWRI’s goal has been to demonstrate cumulative impact in ecologically important watersheds where local leadership is strong. With a focus on projects tied to a published watershed or salmon recovery plan, we set out to repair major ecological functions — not to fix every problem facing salmon in their habitat. Selecting “Focus Watersheds” was difficult – there were too many good choices and too few dollars to go around — but our collective work has resulted in repairing most of the natural processes in several watersheds, including the Salmon River of the Sandy Basin and the South Fork Coquille River in Southern Oregon.

Our collective work across the region generated the following benefits for salmon and steelhead:

  • 6,500 acres of habitat restored;
  • More than 900 miles of stream habitat opened-up and improved; and
  • More than 150 miles of roads that impact habit removed or improved.

While concluding the WWRI, we found six lessons from 10 years of coordinating investments:

Create shared priorities
We could have spent years debating the merits of selecting one watershed over the another. Instead, we compiled the best available data, compared it to Forest Service and NOAA priorities, identified local support, and then reached a decision. While not all priorities made the final list, we found shared priorities and then sought funding collaboratively.

Learn to translate
Each of our government agency partners has different rules and restrictions on how its money can be used. Agency representatives commonly refer to how they have “different colors of money” that can make doing business together practically impossible. In the first year of the WWRI, when OWEB worked directly with several National Forests, it was so stressful that one partner went gray and one went bald. In the second year, we figured out how to translate the money: Ecotrust, as a private non-profit, was able to pool these differing government dollars into one fund and, when necessary, advance project funding when state agencies couldn’t but federal partners required it.

Make it easy
For the most part, community project sponsors are under-funded, over-worked, and not interested in spending significant portions of their time filling out form after form. Fortunately — and more often than we anticipated — our government partners were able to adjust policies to make the granting process easier and more streamlined. Working with a modified version of OWEB’s reporting forms, our federal agencies set aside some requirements as long as essential pieces of information were included in applications and reports. Creating one application and reporting form for five different state and federal agencies that all allocate similar salmon restoration funding helped significantly ease the administrative burden for our community partners.

Trust takes time – but it’s worth it!
Pooling funds, giving up full control over resource allocation, relaxing or making slight adjustments to rules — are all possible with trust, commitment, and the recognition that partnerships accomplish more together than solitary individual groups or agencies. Natural resource agencies should be pooling their funds and coordinating their investments more, not less.

Adapt to new restoration challenges
The last two years of record wildfires and drought in our region have had serious impacts on our partners’ restoration projects. Nearly every project team was affected by low river flows, high stream temperatures, and mandatory shutdowns because of wildfires or the increased risk of fires. For example, the reintroduction of beaver to Washington’s Methow Valley was compromised by both fires and dry climate. And a tributary reconnection project on the South Umpqua watershed in Oregon lost its crew and equipment to fires. Restoration practitioners in the region are forced to adapt rapidly to these challenges, and grantors should also recognize these challenges.

Throw a party every once in a while
In 2010, we celebrated whole watershed restoration with Stories from Our Watersheds Film Festival, and it was so much fun. Celebrations such as the Film Festival are hard to fund, but they are worth it. We were pleasantly surprised by the number of our restoration partners who traveled from all parts of Washington and Oregon to join us in Portland for the film festival, and I still field questions about when we’re going to do it again.