Background image of A great blue heron stands in moving water in a slough that feeds Waite Ranch. Sunlight reflects off of the Siuslaw River.

Restoring the Siuslaw River estuary

Over the past five years, Ecotrust has directed more than $700,000 toward restoring the former Waite Ranch on the lower Siuslaw River as a tidally-influenced wetland, re-establishing high-quality habitat for many species of native fish, waterfowl, and shorebirds.

In 2010, our partners at McKenzie River Trust acquired Waite Ranch, a 216-acre former dairy farm, and are restoring its natural ecological processes in partnership with the Siuslaw Watershed Council. Three miles east of coastal Florence, Oregon, the property sits in the Siuslaw River estuary, directly adjacent to the main river channel. Waite Ranch contributes to what is now a 1,195-acre mosaic of Siuslaw estuary conservation properties.

Before its development into a commercial dairy farm, the Waite Ranch property was a tidally-influenced wetland, home to extensive Pacific crabapple, Sitka spruce, and emergent wetlands edged by floodplain forest. Historic cannery records indicate that the Siuslaw was one of the most productive rivers for anadromous fish, particularly Oregon Coast coho salmon, in the Pacific Northwest.

Historic alteration of the Siuslaw River estuary’s tidal wetlands, which once offered high-quality nursery, refuge, and feeding grounds for juvenile fish, is partially responsible for the subsequent decline of salmon runs. That makes restoration of wetlands critical for salmon recovery.

Waite Ranch is the semicircle property at the center of the picture.

Returning to a functioning estuary

In the early 20th century, much of the estuary habitat on the Oregon Coast was drained and tidegates were installed to convert natural areas to agriculture. This took place at Waite Ranch, and for decades the property was a dairy ranch, then leased for cattle grazing. McKenzie River Trust, the Siuslaw Watershed Council, Ecotrust, and other partners aim to restore Waite Ranch to its historic condition, amplifying the ecological value of adjacent conservation lands and elevating the overall ecological function of the estuary. Due to the uniquely productive nature of estuaries and the landscape setting of the project, restoration of Waite Ranch will generate habitat benefit for birds and fish that is far greater than the sum of its acres.

Boosting tourism and fisheries

Healthy habitats for fish and waterfowl are markers for overall environmental wellbeing, supporting healthy human communities. Mosaics of wetlands like the reemerging lower Siuslaw support the economic ecosystem important to all of us.

In the long term, restored habitat is anticipated to support stronger runs of coho and Chinook salmon, as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout. These fish will benefit commercial and recreational fisheries, generating additional economic activity far into the future. And as a new link on the Siuslaw Water Trail — a magnet for boaters, birders, and anglers — Waite Ranch will also contribute to local tourism.

Kayakers on the Siuslaw just upstream of Waite Ranch

Investing in restoration

Building on a long history of work in the Siuslaw watershed, Ecotrust directed $230,000 to Waite Ranch through the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative, between 2010 and 2013. The funds supported restoration planning and removal of buildings, septic tanks, concrete pads, and other historic infrastructure. Following on the heels of those investments, Ecotrust helped secure $492,000 in NOAA funds for restoration of Waite Ranch, with the potential for securing an additional $500,000 in the next year. We are not only leveraging funds for the project, we are also helping tell the unique story of Waite Ranch in the broader context of Siuslaw River conservation and resilience.

A restored salmon nursery

The Siuslaw Watershed Council and McKenzie River Trust are now developing and implementing a restoration plan for the property. They have removed most built infrastructure, and in coming years will excavate tidal channels, fill agricultural ditches, install protections for the adjacent highway and neighbors, lower a dike, remove the tidegate, and replant portions of the property. The overarching goal is to restore approximately 200 acres of tidal wetland and recreate roughly six miles of high-quality feeding and rearing habitat for salmon, waterfowl, and other aquatic species. The restoration is expected to be completed in 2016, after which long-term monitoring will be implemented and, hopefully, Waite Ranch will once again be teeming with juvenile salmon.

For more information on Waite Ranch, please visit McKenzie River Trust and the Siuslaw Watershed Council’s project pages.