Steve Wilson bought his 800-acre piece of paradise in Pend Oreille County with definite economic ambitions.
“I came to cut some timber, raise some cattle and grow some crops for my retirement security,” he said.
Those goals remain intact after 23 years. But the manner in which he’s accomplishing them has been dramatically revised.
“I can’t pinpoint when my ideas changed,” said the 55-year-old firefighter, who retired last year. “But it had something to do with the beaver dam.”
Years ago, a few beavers had managed to build a dam on a neighbor’s property. Water backed up from Deer Creek and flooded about 10 acres of hay meadow on Wilson’s land.
“It wasn’t until the neighbors blew up the dam and the water drained that I realized how important the wetland was,” he said. “The number of wildlife species the water attracted was amazing. Everything from frogs and ducks and birds to moose. I didn’t really appreciate them until they were gone.”
The original settlers on Wilson’s land began cutting much of the area’s remaining timber in the 1920s. They tiled the natural wetlands with parallel cedar-plank troughs to keep the wetlands drained. This made the property more productive for hay and livestock.
Wildlife, however, took a beating.
“Barbed-wire fences aren’t friendly to moose, drained wetlands aren’t good for nesting ducks, and a forest monoculture is unhealthy” Wilson said.
“When I bought the place, I had no concept of the value of a wetland for wildlife or groundwater recharge. Like most people, I thought it was a swamp that was supposed to be drained. In fact, I got federal cost-sharing to drain some of it myself. Water has always been a great impediment to utilizing the land.”
About the same time the beavers were raising his consciousness, Wilson read a Spokesman-Review story about a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) program that helped compensate landowners for wetland restoration.
“The whole way I looked at my property had slowly begun to change,” he said.
Wilson soon learned that several organizations and agencies had programs to offer assistance to landowners willing to boost wildlife. By making a commitment to habitat restoration, he could get help on a range of services from soil inventories to earth moving and fencing.
Since 1991, Wilson has received assistance of one sort or another from a spectrum of groups from Ducks Unlimited and the Kalispel Tribe of Indians to the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service, the state Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources departments, and the Pend Oreille Conservation District.
“Looking back over the years, the wettest areas on my property have always been the most difficult to maintain in crop production,” he said. “It makes more sense to stop fighting it and go with the natural course.”
With the help of government experts, the tiles were removed in about 50 acres of original wetland areas and the state Department of Natural Resources used explosives to create several craters that soon filled with water and revegetated with wetland plants.
“I also provided some area for seasonal wetlands, plus some upland buffer, including good timber land.”
Then he secured it in a permanent easement with the federal Wetland Reserve Program.
“That gives some permanence to the work we put in to help landowners restore wildlife habitat,” said Jeff Combs, FWS private lands coordinator for North Idaho and Eastern Washington.
“With more intensive work on the uplands, I figured I could restore the wetlands with no net loss in crop production,” Wilson said. “This will be a boost to waterfowl and wildlife, to have both the crops the buffer and the water.”
By scouting around, Wilson has found free or inexpensive sources of trees from as far away as Nevada.
“Tenaska, a Nevada coal-fired electrical plant, has an agreement with the federal government to compensate for the carbon the plant will produce,” Wilson said. “The company has to promote the planting of trees to mitigate the greenhouse effect the plant will contribute to.”
Wilson obtained ponderosa pines for the dry areas of his land, larch, spruce and white pines for other areas.
He’s planted 13,000 trees this year to go with 28,000 two years ago and 6,000 he obtained from the Natural Resources Conservation Service three years ago.
Of course, there’s a catch to almost all the assistance Wilson has obtained in the past six years.
The trees from Tenaska can’t be cut for 80 years. Some of the wetlands are in perpetual protection.
Although the easements Wilson has signed for a portion of his property will reduce the value of the land to development, much of the loss can be deducted from taxes.
Wilson is harvesting timber to earn enough money off the land to take advantage of the tax advantages.
“We salvaged junk lodgepole in some areas and focused on replanting a more natural mix of species,” he said. “With proper management, this wouldn’t have been necessary. But at this point, I need the money to continue the reforestation.”
“Our priority is not the short term, but the long term. I’m not going to see big trees out of the ones I’ve planted. It’s too bad more people don’t see value in things they won’t necessarily enjoy themselves.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WORK HONORED Steve Wilson’s wetlands restoration work stands out as one of the shining examples in the Western States. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service honored the the landowner with its National Wetlands Conservation Award for Individual Accomplishment from the Pacific Region. The national award was established in 1990 to recognize special efforts to protect wetlands. Wilson was scheduled to received a framed 1996 Federal Duck Stamp print, signed by the artist, in a presentation at his property on Thursday.
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