Walker Brothers has worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on several conservation-minded projects on lands leased on the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. While the federal government requires participation in some programs in order to farm the leases (located on the nation’s only wildlife refuge that has farmed cropland on it), there are others that are completely voluntary. And according to Ron Cole and Loren Ruport, two of the people who create and manage these programs, the voluntary programs seem to be the ones that are benefiting farmers and wildlife the most.
If you ever get the opportunity to talk with Ron or Loren, one thing is evident – they love what they do at the Tule Lake National Refuge. Ron, Refuge Manager of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, sounds committed to finding a balance between providing for the wildlife that call the 39,116 acres home and the farmers who grow crops on the leases. Loren, Private Lands Biologist, gives you a sense of the excitement he has from working with farmers on various aspects of conservation projects.
Of all the programs farmers can participate in to promote native vegetation growth and wildlife habitat, one stands out from all of them – the Walking Wetlands. The Walking Wetlands programs falls into what Ron likes to call “Ecologically Superior Agriculture” – the idea that you can find a balance that is beneficial to the environment as well as increase the crops and profits of farmers. “If it works for the operator,” Ron said, “it works for all.” Loren added that’s it’s necessary to sell these programs from a business point of view to folks who have to meet a bottom line. “You got to find what it is these individuals are interested in,” he said, referring to the various crops grown on the leases.
The Walking Wetlands program does just that. The name comes from the idea of a wetland “walking around the landscape.” The program allows a farmer to trade a lease or private land to be flooded for the opportunity to farm land on the refuge. A dike is built around the traded ground and flooded for at least two years, though it can be longer and dikes can be left for up to 10 years. As a result, the wetland moves every so often, and the land that has been flooded gives farmers higher yields with fewer inputs. Even though Ron and Loren get very little feedback about how beneficial the Walking Wetlands has been for farmers, they know it’s working. “The flooded lease bids are higher, ” Ron said, with a smile.
The program proved its effectiveness from the very beginning. When the Walking Wetlands was first tested, many recommended Ron try it on Lot 5. Due to farming and weed suppression, the lease had not had any native plants growing in it for several years and was notorious for having the highest concentration of nematodes on the Refuge. “We overachieved our first year,” Ron laughed. Native plants, cattails in particular, came back heavier and thicker than they had intended though they had been effectively beaten back. It was successful for agriculture as well. After being a wetland for a couple of years, when the water was drained and tested for farming, they found there were no nematodes in the soil and the nitrogen levels were off the charts. The farmer who had the lease had yields increase by 25% without the need to fumigate for pests.
According to Loren and Ron, these kinds of yields are par for the course on ground coming out from being a wetland (hence the high bids). They explained it was like giving the ground a vacation. After being farmed for years, getting flooded gave the ground a chance to revive itself. Native plants that were thought to have disappeared from the dirt come back almost immediately. Without the crops pests thrive in, they either die or move on to where they have a food source, thus more or less disappearing from the wetland. With the ground being fallow and flooded, organic material is broken down and returned to the soil, increasing the nutrient load that makes the soil some of the richest farmland in the United States.
While the benefit to farmers is obvious, the success of these fields benefits wildlife and the Walking Wetlands program as well. Ducks and geese traveling the Pacific Flyway are treated to grain left by farmers after harvest and the created wetlands provide habitat. The wetlands clean pollutants and buffer the water, making it cleaner for salmon and other downstream fish fed by the Klamath Basin. And if the farmers are successful, they want to participate in the program, which increases the acres participating in the Walking Wetlands.
Though the Walking Wetlands is successful, its future isn’t guaranteed. For starters, like Klamath Basin agriculture, consistent water delivery is vital to the program. “Water is key for the future of the Basin,” Ron said, pointing out that the refuge needs water certainty as much as farmers. The Tule Lake refuge is at the end of the line for water delivery, right behind farmers and ranchers. The irony of the situation is the refuge and the wetlands, which in low precipitation years receive no water, could actually clean the water to help the salmon down river which take the highest priority.
Another component to ensuring the success of the Walking Wetlands is cooperation. Since Ron has been at the Tule Lake Refuge, he says he has seen cooperation between farmers and Fish and Wildlife grow. As long as the program is successful for farmers and conservation, it will continue to work. A big part of building that cooperation is, as Ron points out, having people like Loren who work with farmers to build trust between Fish and Wildlife.
“Communication is the key,” said Loren to building that trust and the relationships with farmers. Keeping participating farmers up to date about the progress of the programs is as vital as working to ensure the physical structures are in place and the funding to support them. Loren and Ron both stressed that communicating to the public about the benefits of the Walking Wetlands program is also important.
When will they know when the Walking Wetlands is a success? “When it’s a bona fide program,” said Ron. Other refuges, from the Skagit Valley in Washington down to the Sacramento Delta are implementing the Walking Wetlands. Word of the Tule Lake Refuge’s program is even getting attention beyond the West Coast and various universities are studying it as a part of their conservation curriculum. As time goes by, Ron and Loren are learning more about the benefits of having a wetland rotate throughout an area, which will hopefully lead to support and funding from the federal government.
Regardless of whether the program garners full governmental support, for Walker Brothers, the program is incredibly successful and we’re happy to participate in it. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Ron and Loren for the hard work they do on behalf Klamath Basin farmers as well as to thank them for their time to talk with us for this blog post. Thank you, gentlemen!
If you’re interested in more information about the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge or the Walking Wetlands program, you can reach Ron at the Refuge headquarters at 530 667-2231.