Steve Denney, The Conservancy’s Oregon south coast project director
Steve Denney’s work in the Coquille Valley takes him to some unexpected places, like a local radio show where he had to follow a group of roller derby girls. “They were a tough act to follow,” Denney said.
Other places are very familiar, like ranches, because he grew up working on ranches in central Oregon.
“I find it’s very rewarding working with these ranchers. Many are trying to make a living and pass their farms and ranches on to their children and grandchildren,” Denney said, who lives on a 100-acre farm in southern Oregon and spent 17 years working for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, most recently as a regional director.
Denney now serves as the Conservancy’s project director on the south coast. He’s finding ways to return the tide to the historically salmon-heavy Coquille Valley, east of Bandon.
Tidal wetlands once covered 14,400 acres of the valley. As of 2000, there were only 375 acres left. Coho salmon, a threatened species, used to number over half a million. Currently, up to 25,000 run the river each year. In addition, the valley is an important annual stopover for millions of birds; in fact, winter flooding of the valley supports the largest coastal concentrations of dabbling ducks between San Francisco Bay and the U.S.-Canada border.
The biggest thing salmon need here are wetlands where they can eat, hide from predators, and escape the main river during winter floods. But tide gates and ditches currently keep the land dry. The Conservancy is working to ultimately purchase and restore tidal wetlands on 700 acres in the valley, and eventually transfer it to state ownership.
“I don’t think working landscapes and restoration are mutually exclusive. I think they can be done together,” said Denney, who oversees a 25-acre wetland mitigation bank on his own farm, too.
More modern tide gates can be adjusted and change the water level for fish or cows. So the tide — and the salmon — can come and go. And cows can have their grass — and eat it, too.