One of our flagship endeavors here at Blue Mountains Conservancy, End Creek represents an ongoing restoration effort years in the making and involving a number of different partners in an inspiring collaboration.
Situated in the Willow Creek watershed about some eight miles north of La Grande, the parcel lies on land originally developed as a dairy farm in the 1950s and subsequently planted in field crops. Its current owner, Joel Rice, helped initiate an ambitious undertaking in the late 2000s to restore the riparian ecosystem mosaic composed by End Creek as well as several related reaches: a tributary, McDonald Creek; a stretch of its parent stream, South Fork Willow Creek; and several spring-fed watercourses in the basin.
As an ecological system, End Creek bridges the topographic spectrum of the western Grande Ronde Valley, with its headwaters rising up on the Mount Emily breaks at some 6,000 feet and its mouth in the South Fork Willow Creek at 2,700 feet down in the valley bottomlands. Lower reaches of End Creek experienced—like other waterways in the Grande Ronde—significant modification under Euro-American settlement. Already by the 1930s, according to a Grande Ronde Model Watershed (GRMW) assessment, the mainstem had been rerouted and channelized.
The End Creek Restoration Project comprised Rice and other private landowners, the GRMW, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW), the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB).
At the onset, surveying revealed End Creek and other streamways on the parcel as entrenched, unstable, morphologically simplified, and deficient in terms of riparian vegetation. A survey showed native salmonids (Snake River summer steelhead and spring Chinook) absent from the lower stretches of End Creek and McDonald Creek and from the South Fork Willow Creek, likely due to high summer water temperatures. A major impetus of the restoration scheme was to enhance fish habitat in the watershed.
Launched in 2006, the project restored about 1.5 miles of both the End Creek and the South Fork Willow Creek channels to more natural conditions and added more than five miles of tributary channels and several floodplain ponds to expand wetland habitat in the watershed. Workers installed rock cross vanes and rootwad revetments to End Creek and large woody debris to South Fork Willow Creek to stabilize channels and boost their structural and ecological complexity, and constructed earthen terraces to protect adjoining parcels from flooding.
Besides the replanting of shrubs, sedges, and rushes salvaged ahead of floodplain reshaping, the End Creek Restoration Project also spread native seeds at the site: tufted hairgrass, basin wildrye, Idaho fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, and other native grasses.
Building on all of that worthy vision and heavy-duty collaborative gruntwork, we here at BMC helped make the foundational NRCS easement at End Creek a permanent one, and continue to contribute to the long-term stewardship of this special property. We’ve secured grants for further riparian plantings, installed a bridge over End Creek, led K-12 education programs at the site, and mustered the help of Eastern Oregon University students and faculty in ongoing restoration and monitoring projects—work carried out, in fitting tribute to the property’s heritage, from one of its historic barns as well as a machine shed kindly donated by Mr. Rice.
Honoring the history of a rural property, enhancing fish habitat and all-around ecosystem services through the recovery of native wetland habitat and processes, celebrating public and private partnerships in the preservation of open lands in the Grande Ronde Valley: End Creek beautifully embodies the value and potential of conservation easements. And, of course, it’s near and dear to us here at the BMC as one of the enterprises (along with the Mount Emily Recreation Area) that helped establish our team and define our mission.