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Oregon

Rebirth of a River

“This wonderful hush, the sound of water, came by ... I thought I was out there to say goodbye to the river as I’ve always known it. But instead, it was just, “‘you’re home.’”

By Jen Newlin

Over 15 years ago, Liza Jane Nichols was out walking the ranch with her young son when they found themselves in the gullied channel where the Wallowa River in Northeastern Oregon used to run. And it dawned on them: why not restore the river and put it back on its old, bending path? 

And so they did. 

Nichols is the former project steward at the Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Preserve — 33,000 acres of rolling grassland flanked by snow-peaked mountains — and she’s since chosen to dedicate her full attention to her family’s ranch. 

She owns and works the 6 Ranch, with her husband Craig, at the foot of the Wallowa Mountains outside the small town of Enterprise. Nichols’ great grandfather homesteaded the ranch about 125 years ago. They raise Corriente beef, tend dairy cows to make their own cheese, and sell eggs locally from their flock of 24 hens. You’ll find horses (and a team of border collies) to move cattle. 

The river

It’s about 30 miles long and a tributary to the Grand Rhone River.

  •  The Wallowa River is home to steelhead, salmon, rainbow trout and a host of other wildlife.
  • Years ago, to make room for the railroad and highway, the natural river bends — which once carved through the 6 Ranch — were taken out and the river was straightened.
  • Unfortunately, this common practice had a big impact on fish and was a major factor in their decline. Without meanders, the river ran more quickly and deprived fish of the natural pools, shade and habitat complexity they need. 

The Nichols family wanted to help fix that. In 2009, with funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Bonneville Power Administration, engineers and equipment operators carved up a mile of the Nichols’ pasture land along the river’s historic run. It’s an example of how dollars from Oregon’s dedicated conservation fund are put to work on the ground. 

The work

Teams moved earth and, as the old channel was closed off, relocated fish to the new channel. About 150 community members, agency representatives, tribal members, Grande Ronde Model Watershed folks and local kids joined the effort.  

Work continues.  Willows were planted along restored river banks and life along the river continues to emerge.  

The reward

“This happened on a piece of land that we care about and is relatively small in the big picture,” Nicholas said. “But looking at the larger benefits to habitat and fish, it’s clear this is a benefit to everyone.” 

When the river began its first step back into a familiar curve, Nichols sat quietly on a pile of rocks to watch. 

“This wonderful hush, the sound of water, came by. And you know, every once in awhile we just get the feeling that everything is right in the world. That’s how I felt,” she said. “I thought I was out there to say goodbye to the river as I’ve always known it. But instead, it was just, “‘you’re home.’” 

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