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COQUILLE VALLEY — Progress and partnerships.

For long-time Coquille resident Paul Heikkila and one of the key backers of the Coquille Watershed Association, those are key words that come to mind as the group looks ahead. 

Heikkila, vice president Julie Huff and CWA's director Kelly Miles recently reflected on the past 20 years and what's next for the group and its partnerships. 

The association is a nonprofit, 100 percent grant-funded group that works with agencies, landowners and citizens to improve fish habitat and water quality in the Coquille River system. One hundred percent of the group's money stays in Oregon, Miles said, with 95 percent of this total spent within the watershed. She joined in 2009.

Watershed personnel do the following:

  • Streamside fencing;
  • Tree and shrub planting;
  • Stream bank stabilization;
  • Culvert repairing and replacement;
  • Removing invasive weeds; and
  • Improving wetlands. 

An eye for conservation

In 1994, Heikkila and others saw watershed problems that motivated them to form a group to solve them. "It wasn't just a federal project," Heikkila said. "It wasn't just a state project. It was a community project."

"Small landowners. Large landowners. People sitting around the table," he said, pointing his index finger slowly around a rectangular table at the association's office in downtown Coquille.

Citizens talked and listened with agricultural groups, timber interests and environmentalists to compromise.

"A few of us went up to Salem and it was like the insurrection," Heikkila said. "What were the issues?"

They made their case to what was then known as the Governors Watershed Enhancement Board, or GWEB. "Bill Bradbury was our state representative at the time and Bill was a believer."

Some work had already been done by 1994. For example, by the mid-1950s, splash dams were generally eliminated.

The temporary wooden structures impounded water during a season of logging, then let it out in a rush, floating logs downstream — and also scouring away fish habitat.

But more work remained to be done, and some results wouldn't be seen for a long time. For example, Heikkila said, "You gotta realize, when you're planting riparian (streamside) trees, you're making 100-year investments."

"What can we do that's different?" was one question, Heikilla said. "What have we done in the last 100 years? What is the counterpoint to that? It was hard to get past the old philosophies."

Funding came through for the CWA and for the Grande Ronde Model Watershed Program for $100,000. Part of this went to providing money to hire Jim Nielsen who was working for the U.S. Forest Service in the early 1990s.

Nielsen served as the first CWA director. "Jim was the first me," Miles said. 

After that, because of heavy job losses in the fishing industry, CWA personnel decided to try hiring commercial fishermen in the mid-1990s. Some of them supervised prison crews to do stream restoration work and similar tasks.

Some former fishermen stayed a year with the CWA. Others stayed perhaps eight years, and some are still with the group to this day. 

Huff has served as vice president about a year and a half. The Bridge resident works as a project manager for SelkerMetrics LLC, which is a small engineering firm. She earned her master's degree in water resources engineering at Oregon State University. Huff lives along the Coquille River, so for her, the association work has a personal quality. 

Four serve on the board, and the group currently has one vacancy. Each person serves two years.

An individual starts as secretary, then works her way up to treasurer, then to vice president and then president. Association members note that it's preferable that board members live or work within the watershed area. The council elects the board, and Miles said that group "runs the gamut from very conservation-friendly to very industry-friendly." That's not unusual, of course, as Miles pointed out. The group has a wide mix of other components, including biologists, business owners, government officials and landowners. Staff from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality act as advisers. 

What's left to be done

Association members and board representatives have busy times these days prioritizing short- and long-term projects and some of these are not simply conservation ones.

"The website has not been updated for 10 years," Miles said. This means in turn the software is obsolete. "My plans are by early 2016 to have a new, fresh, informative website."

If she can't get grant money, she'll do some fundraising. When membership fees come due, she can appeal for more money for a new website. 

Sixty percent of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board's funding is paid for through the Oregon Lottery. The remainder comes from the Pacific Coast Salmon Fund, which helps salmonids from California to Alaska and is funded by Congress.

These are but a few of the projects keeping the CWA busy. 

One entails improving what's called the Myrtle Point Wetland Enhancement for juvenile fish, so that they can prepare in the winter season before heading out to the ocean. Other work is for migratory bird habitats. 

Staff members wrote that by the fall of 2013 and within five years, they would accomplish several goals, including:

  • Restoring 60 acres of wetland habitat by planting 6,300 conifers and hardwoods along with more than 2,500 willows in 23 acres of wetlands;
  • Protecting about 60 acres of wetlands through installing 2.5 miles of livestock fencing;
  • Improving fish passage and access to two stream miles in the replacement of two undersized culverts and installing bridges; and
  • Cutting down on reed canary grass and Himalayan blackberry brush within wetlands. 

Another project is for the Daphne and Kelly Creeks as well as the South Fork Large Wood. According to a CWA document, the project's main purpose is improving damaged instream habitat for steelhead trout, coho and chinook salmon and other native species. Additionally, the "project is considered a high priority" for various reasons, including low bank stability, lack of pools, a natural curve to the stream and other factors all "necessary for a healthy habitat and the recovery of Endangered Species Act listed coho salmon."

Former Oregon Democratic legislator and Secretary of State Bill Bradbury has advocated over time for healthy salmon fisheries and been active with watershed councils around the state, Miles said. 

Bradbury said "what's remarkable about the Coquille Watershed Association, and virtually all watershed councils in Oregon, is that they bring together diverse groups of people to improve salmon survival and water quality all across the state."

Bradbury agreed with Miles that it's "unique in that these folks don't always agree on everything, but inspiring to see them working together and dedicated to improving water quality and habitat for our native salmon."

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Coquille Valley Courant Editor Shelby Case can be reached at (541) 269-1222, ext. 296 or shelby.case@theworldlink.com.

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