About two decades ago, Cliff Hall made a big decision. He and his wife Gay bought an 80-acre property in Kings Valley, whose modern namesake is derived from the land’s former owners, the pioneering King family. Not long after, they bought the property next door, bringing the grand total to 165 acres. In that time, their notable restoration efforts have seen them team up with local non-profits and school students, all the while spreading the enthusiasm to those around them.
“We bought it not with the intent of making a living farming,” he tells me, “but rather finding a piece of property with unique ecological and natural history attributes that we could preserve and develop.” We are sitting on the back porch of the original homestead, drinking cold water sourced from the property’s streams, gazing down the valley. Passed him and his wife’s vibrant flower garden, the riparian corridor of the Luckiamute River that marks the property’s western border.
Farthest away, we can make out a stand of 80-120-foot established black cottonwood trees along the river. From there to here, many smaller, younger trees dot the landscape. Hall planted 20,000 of these personally, and about 30,000 more with the help of several government agencies and local non-profits.
Earlier, Hall had walked me through much of this new-coming forest on paths he maintains himself. Surrounding us were Willamette ponderosa pines, willows, incense cedars, big leaf maples, and Oregon white oaks. While some trees only reached waist height, others were already pushing twenty feet or more. Between the rows of trees, faint paths marked where Roosevelt elk herds travel. In the winter, Hall counted 70 individuals at once. He has also spotted four species of swallows, overwintering waterfowl such as teals and buffleheads, river otters, and perhaps more cougars than most would feel comfortable with.
Hall described to me the lengths he went to getting these trees in the ground after he reached his first of four retirements from medicine. Walking the property with a sack on his back filled with bare-root stock saplings and a pick-axe in hand, Hall lost a dangerous amount of weight and acquired carpal tunnel in both his hands. After four months going on this way, Gay told him that if he didn’t go back to work he’d kill himself.
Hall laughs, “A lot of people look at it and say ‘it’s just a huge amount of work, why would you do it?’ and for me it’s been something I’ve enjoyed just physically doing…to keep active, to do something very different than medicine, it’s very relaxing for me. And it’s the sense that maybe I’m leaving the place a little bit better, one little corner of the world.”
Kings Valley Past and Present
The Society for Ecological Restoration defines the process Hall embarked on twenty years ago not so differently than he did in other words: Restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed. It is purposeful work, demanding thoughtful consideration and an indefinite commitment to the land. Along the way, humans benefit by enhancing valuable ecosystem services, and also by reinforcing local cultural practices that may have elapsed.
Present-day Kings Valley has been a significant piece of the greater Willamette Valley eco-region as long as humans have inhabited it. Hall’s understanding is that the Kalapuya Indians used this particular valley as a trade route. In 1847, the King family’s wagon train arrived, also seeing value in the land.
“The King Family is interesting,” Hall recounts, “they started out in Ohio and got flooded out, so they moved to Missouri. Then they got flooded out in Missouri so they said ‘okay we’re going to move to Oregon where we won’t get flooded out.’ And this is where they settled, this is where they built, way up high,” he points down his property, “I mean the 500-year floodline is way in the middle of the field down there, so it would have to be a Noah’s Ark kind of flood to actually get water all the way up here.”
Nahum King’s daughter built the home in 1898. Between the time her family abided here and Hall’s, only two others have followed suit. In between, the Great Depression occurred, and for a time, no one lived here at all. All except the cows, Hall corrects: “The old timers say that they still ran cattle out here. The cattle would be on the front porch on a hot summer day, they would actually be hanging out in the shade on the front porch of the house.”
While raising cattle was certainly a different land use than had ever occurred here before Anglo settlement, it was not the most damaging. In those times, logging in Kings Valley was even more pronounced than it is today. The Luckiamute River was used to transport logs, and loggers built small wooden dams in narrow stretches of the river, ponding up the water behind it. They’d cut logs and amass them behind the dams, then when enough material was present, they’d dynamite the dam and flush all the logs downstream to the mill at once. While this was an efficient way to transport the resource, it took a toll on the river, straightening out many of its’ meanders and incising its banks.
The two creeks on Hall’s property that flow directly into the Luckiamute River, Maxfield Creek and Price Creek, have reacted similarly to human land use changes, to the disadvantage of the native fish populations that live there. Hall is working to set that right. In addition to restoring the riparian vegetation, Hall has also had in-stream restoration projects occur on his property. In Maxfield Creek alone, 80 Douglas-fir logs were placed in logjams. These man-made additions occur naturally in a pristine fish habitat. Since their placement here, they have helped the creek to begin to curve more, developing side-channel features that juvenile fish depend on for surviving high winter flows.
Today, juvenile coho salmon, steelhead, and cutthroat trout have been found via snorkel surveys, and are known to come back as adults to spawn in the creek’s suitably sized gravel substrate.
Restoration as Collaboration
Hall alone could not have accomplished all these plantings and in-stream projects so effectively. First on his list of partners in restoration is his good friend Steve Smith, who currently manages Finley Wildlife Refuge with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Smith was instrumental not only in connecting Hall to agencies that could help him achieve his
goals, but also in picking out the property itself.
“When he got excited about it, I got excited, and decided that I really wanted this property,” Hall explains. Later on, “Steve directed me towards Benton Soil and Water Conservation District, which in turn directed me toward the CREP program with the Department of Agriculture.”
CREP stands for Conservation Reserve and Enhancement Program. Established during the Clinton administration, it is a cost-share program designed to “help people do the right thing.” Instead of forcing landowners to fix the degraded streams on their properties, the federal government at the time decided it would be more effective to incentivize appropriate behavior.
“In the CREP program, we took pasture land and converted it into wildlife areas…but it’s not productive in terms of making money,” Hall explains. In exchange, “the Department of Agriculture pays me roughly $100 an acre to maintain that in wildlife areas. They know that we took it out of production, so they are making up for that. I’m not cutting hay on it and not fattening cattle on it, but they are paying me
a little bit, and in return I’m to
keep invasive species under reasonable control, I’m not going to cut down the trees, and I’m going to do some additional planting from time to time.”
Enrolling land in the program involves signing a 15-year contract, which Hall says is “a little daunting if this isn’t what you really want to do. It sounds like you’re getting in bed with the government…it’s not exactly the American way of property rights, but for me it was exactly what I wanted because I was able to use their expertise.”
80 acres of Hall’s property are enrolled in CREP, and 150 of them are protected in perpetuity through a conservation easement with the Greenbelt Land Trust. Hall laughs, “It’s like a dual restriction. I have to deal with both the Department of Agriculture and Greenbelt Land Trust…but that’s fine by me.”
As part of this agreement, no new dwellings can be built on the property; either by Hall or any of the future landowners. If someone down the line violated these restrictions, Greenbelt would sue.
Hall’s land use decisions gave his new neighbors an initial impression of him as perhaps a doctor gone mad — old timers could still remember the days when people first began clearing the land. But as time went on, many could appreciate what he was doing.
“The property owner to the south put 60-70 acres into CREP, largely because we did it,” Hall explains. Later on, neighbors “Pat and Betty Malone who own Sunrise Tree Farm across the street got 20 acres into CREP.” Soon enough, neighbors who didn’t like the idea of working with the federal government found their own way to restore their properties by working with the Luckiamute River Watershed Council, “They helped [a neighbor] put up fencing to keep the cattle out of the creek and they did some plantings,” Hall says.
The human intervention Hall and his wife began here could be described as a domino effect, and they are happy to have seen this firsthand. While Hall has also gotten to witness the growth of his trees, it often is hard for him on a day-to-day basis to appreciate the multitude of ways in which the restoration he began has enhanced the land, when so much maintenance work is still required.
Some of the people who will be able to better enjoy the long-term benefits of the restoration actually spend a fair amount of time on the property as it is. Next door to Hall’s is the Kings Valley Charter School, a K-12 school with just over 200 students. Hall allows the students onto his property for use as an outdoor school, cross-country training practice, and to help him with many restoration plantings themselves. “That was not something I expected when I bought the property,” Hall says, “[the students] have an investment in it, they know what’s going on.”
Because of his experience, Hall advises landowners beginning a similar endeavor to “take it slowly…you have to have that long-term goal and say ‘I may not have all the enjoyment of it’…look at this as a project that you’ll see some changes and some benefits of, but the real benefit is going to be 30, 50, 100 years from now.”
Before I leave Hall’s home, we stop in the kitchen to drop off our water glasses. Over the sink is a large window, and I notice something I did not when I first arrived.
“Is that Mary’s Peak?” I ask him. It is, and in the foreground are some of the young trees we had walked through. Hall relates that someday those trees will grow so tall that they will block this view, and that this too is fine by him. It feels all too fitting: the big picture of restoration lies not in the grand view at the end, but in each intricacy along the way.
By Ari Blatt