River Partners celebrates 15 years of habitat restoration
Nonprofit turns flood-prone farmland into thriving wildlife habitat
Chico Enterprise-Record - May 15, 2014
By Ashley Gebb
John Carlon, president of River Partners, talks about success of a restoration site south of Butte City, thanks to the natural shift of the Sacramento River. The nonprofit celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.
BUTTE CITY — Standing on the edge of a washed-out riverbank, John Carlon can't help but smile.
Doubters said his nonprofit was crazy. Critics said they were investing in a lost cause.
Yet as the president of River Partners gazed out from the restoration site on a recent morning, he said it could not have worked more perfectly. The Thomas Unit, the agency's second restoration project along a former course of the Sacramento River south of Butte City, has become an ideal landscape for wildlife through an unlikely marriage of restoration efforts and Mother Nature's kind graces.
"This would be as good as it gets," Carlon said, amid a gentle chorus of background birds. "This is just an incubator of wildlife down here. You can hear it."
As River Partners celebrates its 15th year, the Thomas Unit project is one Carlon points for the organization's existence.
The space the river vacated in its quarter-mile move east became prime wetlands, and the Oregon ash, cottonwoods and oaks towering above on the restored valley floor provide habitat in former flood-prone farm lands. Hanging vegetation provides shade for fish, and birds, which numbered four species before the restoration and 56 three years later, use higher trees to scope out bugs below.
When River Partners was formed by Carlon and farmer Barney Flynn in 1999, the goal was to meld wildlife-friendly farming with the ecosystem. Carlon likes to use the term "re-wilding our rivers."
Their first project secured a grant to work at Ord Bend, now a nondescript yet thriving restoration site off Ord Ferry Road. Since then, River Partners has secured $95 million in state and federal funding and private dollars for conservation work across the state.
At first it faced heavy opposition and critics from this agriculture-based economy, Carlon said. Yet, over the last 15 years, many have realized River Partners is an asset, not a threat.
"What everyone wants at the end of the day is the same — healthy rivers with healthy water and thriving wildlife," he said. "It's how we get there that everyone is quibbling about."
River Partners has never tried to sue or stop work. It only tackles projects as it finds them, often securing struggling land from willing farmers to return it prime habitat.
On a walk through the Ord Bend site, honeybees danced on wild California roses, birds rustled in the bushes, and a red-tail hawk swooped through the sky. A rabbit darted through the trees and Carlon said larger animals, such as coyotes and even mountain lions are known to frequent the restored areas.
A once bare dirt field is now filled with grasses, and cottonwoods tower over oaks rising in their shade, eventually to take over when the other trees die and fall.
"We are creating a fake forest, if you will," Carlon said. "But it's creating habitat. Even though it's not something you see in nature, it's provided a lot of wildlife habitat."
In the last 15 years, River Partners has acquired and protected 2,500 acres of land along the Sacramento, Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers. It has restored 8,000 acres of flood-prone farmland into riverside forest with the planting of 1.5 million trees.
The wildlife it targets are responding, Carlon said.
The Least Bell's vireo songbird, which hasn't been seen in the Central Valley in 60 years, was recently spotted with chicks in a tree River Partners planted. And tens of thousands of new elderberry bushes have become home for the endangered elderberry beetle, aiding its removal from the endangered list.
Kim Forrest, wildlife refuge manager of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said she never imagined the nonprofit would reach this level or have such extensive influence.
"They are kind of the gold standard for the quality of restoration work," Forrest said.
Her first project together was using a CALFED grant for the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, a relatively new refuge that had expanded to restore four flood-prone farms to dense riparian woodlands. A decade later, little remains to be done and the project has been a major success.
On Forrest's refuge alone, the agency has restored 2,700 acres and enabled the reintroduction of the endangered riparian brush rabbit that once was considered for extinction. Today, 1,000 rabbits have been reintroduced and with the help of renewed habitat are growing in numbers with many other birds and mammals.
With recent budget cuts, only one employee is assigned to the San Joaquin refuge and River Partners helps co-manage it, Forrest said. She calls the nonprofit her "most trusted partner" in her 38 years of experience with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"People don't realize how critically important riparian woodlands are to wildlife," she said. "They are restoring some of the most important and beleaguered habitat in California."
Roadmap to Restoratioin
After expanding 12 years ago to the Central Valley and three years ago to Southern California, River Partners today operates on an $8 million annual budget. The agency has 30 employees with diverse backgrounds, from those with doctorates in restoration ecology to lifelong farmers.
They partner often with the California Conservation Corps and have worked extensively with scout troops, schools and colleges, using projects as outdoor classrooms. The organization starts five to six new restoration projects every year and is working on 40 projects at any given time.
They first identify a good site, study bank erosion and look at what is growing. They eradicate nonnative weeds, preserve good habitat and design habitat for specific wildlife.
After planting, River Partners monitors it for three years. The 38 species of trees, grasses and other vegetation they plant are "climate smart," so they can withstand drought, flood fires or any other extreme weather.
"The same flood waters that can be devastating to a farm is the lifeblood of this forest," Carlon said.
The goal is to turn agricultural liabilities into community assets, including places to hunt, hike and bird-watch.
"We don't want to own the land ... It belongs to the public and we want to give it back as soon as we can," said board chairman Irv Shiffman.
Maintaining quality has been a priority for River Partners in order to not dilute its reputation, Shiffman said. While it once had to seek out sites, today people turn to the nonprofit for help.
When Shiffman first joined 10 years ago, he expected efforts to be local but immediately recognized widespread potential.
"The truth of the matter is that it's needed," he said. "There are so many areas where the agriculture is really not the appropriate use right next to the river."
Flood plains should be returned to their origins — as places where floods can roll over the land without damage and build groundwater, Shiffman said. The drought, disappearance of wetlands and urbanization make it critical to maintain whatever natural areas possible, especially along rivers.
With 95 percent of riparian habitat wiped out in the last 130 years, the need has never been greater, Carlon said.
"There are a lot of California rivers in trouble," he said. "Until we learn to manage our rivers in a more sustainable manner, there is a lot of work to do."
Contact reporter Ashley Gebb at 896-7768.