Building Resilience for Oregon’s Essential Lands, Waters and Rural Communities
In rural Jackson County in southern Oregon, thick stands of Douglas firs encircle the tiny community of Butte Falls. Each fall as wildfire season begins, residents watch and worry as the flames approach the trees around their town, growing closer and more intense every year.
In 2020, as Oregon’s Labor Day Fires tore through eight Oregon counties, the flames came within a half-mile of Butte Falls and Mayor Linda Spencer’s back door. But her small town had a big plan: What if they could buy the million-dollar forest and manage it themselves, for the good of the trees and the community?
“We want to create a resilient, healthy forest around us, and we can’t do that ourselves. We are 450 people. So we are working together with all sorts of wonderful partners, and they are helping us,” Spencer says.
Among those partners is the Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative, which includes the Oregon Community Foundation. Throughout Oregon, the initiative is enabling communities like Butte Falls to protect for generations the lands and waters that define and support them — from working forests to eastern Oregon ranchlands, from Willamette Valley rivers to coastal rainforest.
Supporting land trusts to protect essential lands
Launched in 2019 with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the initiative is a partnership of OCF, Idaho Community Foundation, Seattle Foundation, and the Land Trust Alliance, with contributions from many OCF donors. So far it has granted $5 million to support 24 community-based conservation projects like Butte Falls throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Together those 24 projects are protecting more than 40,000 acres — an area larger than Bryce Canyon National Park or 30,500 football fields. To conserve that much land in three years, the initiative provided critical support for land trusts, which are nonprofits that work with willing sellers and donors to help communities preserve lands and waters.
Key supporters include JPMorgan Chase, which is part of a diverse coalition that brings together national and regional funders, individual donors, community foundations, land trusts, towns, tribes, farmers and ranchers around a shared goal: To protect forever the natural, wild and working lands that are the basis of the Northwest’s farming, ranching, forestry and fishing; the family spaces where people paddle, hunt, hike and fish; the homelands of Native American Tribes since time immemorial; and vital sources of clean air and water.
“We're all connected to our lands in some way, whether we rely on them for drinking water, recreation, or our livelihoods, which include our working farms, forests and ranches. That connection to the land makes this the place that it is, the place we all love,” says Carlos Garcia, program officer for environment at OCF. “This initiative brings people together around supporting our lands, waters and communities, making them more climate resilient, and leveraging dollars to do more of this work across the state.”
JPMorgan Chase recently contributed $500,000 to fund more grants focused on land trusts themselves, to build their capacity to help Northwest communities adapt to and thrive in a changing climate.
“JPMorgan Chase is committed to addressing climate change and building stronger, more resilient communities,” said Taylor Welch, JPMorgan Chase Market Director. “We’re pleased to support the Oregon Community Foundation as part of our efforts, as they work to foster collaboration across the region to employ conservation strategies and promote community resilience.”
This commitment is part of JPMorgan Chase’s efforts to help advance a sustainable and inclusive economy by helping clients transition to a low-carbon world, supporting green initiatives, such as renewable energy and clean technologies, and minimizing the environmental impact of its own operations.
Owning their forest — and their future
Spencer grew up in Ashland. After a career with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., she retired to Butte Falls and was elected mayor in 2016.
“Growing up, we had wildfires, of course. But nothing that was really scary and really threatening to the town. These were all fairly controlled, they were put out relatively quickly, and there weren't that many of them,” she recalls.
The woods that always felt so nurturing when she was a child feel different now, as climate change creates conditions that make wildfire more frequent in Oregon and more devastating.
“It's not nurturing anymore. It's terrifying,” Spencer says.
The 430 forested acres around Butte Falls had been managed by private owners for timber production. The town’s plan to purchase and manage it primarily for wildfire resilience came together over years with the help of many public and private partners. These included The Trust for Public Land, which led grant writing and fundraising and handled the complex real estate transaction — functions that many towns don’t have.
In 2021, the project received $700,000 from the Oregon Legislature which, combined with $400,000 from the U.S. Forest Service, covered most of the purchase price. The Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative awarded $52,000, which helped cover mandatory due diligence costs, such as appraisals and title reviews, says Kristin Kovalik, Oregon Director of Land Conservation for The Trust for Public Land.
Without philanthropic dollars to cover those costs, “we’re at a significant disadvantage,” Kovalik says. “We need private funding to help us meet important project timelines and get us over the finish line.”
Butte Falls will follow a forest management plan that includes thinning, prescribed burns and replanting. It will remain a working forest, and some trees will be logged, Spencer says, with some proceeds going back into resilience efforts. The plan also includes new hiking and biking trails, a historic railroad park and park amenities to draw visitors whose spending will boost the local economy.
“Our first goal is to create a mature, healthy forest around us that is as fire-resilient as we can make it,” Spencer says. “And then it's looking at that forest and seeing how the citizens of Butte Falls can benefit from it, with recreation, hiking trails, that sort of thing. And then asking how we can bring people who are enjoying the forest into the businesses in our town to buy hamburgers, gas, whatever. That’s a piece of it, too. But the first piece is about making us safe.”
Safeguarding ranchlands, sustainably
About 200 miles east of Butte Falls in Oregon’s high desert, the Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative is helping another rural community keep hold of the working lands that define it.
In Lake County, a few thousand acres of ranchland was at risk of being sold to a second-home buyer who would likely convert it to a guest ranch or personal hunting spot. Interest from such buyers has driven up local real estate prices 30% over the agricultural value of the land, says Marc Hudson, Rangeland Program Director for Oregon Agricultural Trust.
When working lands change hands in this way, the new owners don’t have the same incentives as farmers and ranchers to steward the land in sustainable ways, Hudson says. For example, ranchers are careful to prevent highly flammable invasive grasses like medusahead rye from taking root. Invasive grasses increase the frequency of wildfire and can make animals sick. That’s bad for ranchers, cattle and wildlife like the sage-grouse and pronghorn antelope, threatened species that roam the Lake County property.
To maintain the Lake County acreage as working ranchland, Oregon Agricultural Trust is working to secure grants to pay for a conservation easement on the property. The easement will return the price of the land back to its uninflated agricultural value, which will allow a neighboring rancher to afford to buy it. The seller, who is retiring, won’t take a financial loss. And the easement will ensure the property remains ranchland that is managed sustainably forever.
A $225,000 grant from the Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative is covering 25% of the cost of the easement. The grant is doubly important because it makes the project eligible for a federal grant that will pay for the other 75%, Hudson says.
Among other threats to their livelihoods, farmers and ranchers — and the rural communities that depend on them — face enormous risks from climate change, including persistent drought and more frequent wildfires. Partnerships with supporters like the Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative, which keep working lands in production and managed in sustainable ways, provide a hopeful model, Hudson says.
“There’s actually a lot more cooperation than gets talked about,” he says. “This is a prime example of how that cooperation can happen.”