"We're not done — whether it's in Camp Polk or one of the other properties. We see these fisheries coming back, but I want to see whole beaver colonies restoring these flood plains. And some day I hope to see sandhill cranes nesting in one of these meadows."
Brad Chalfant, a founding member of the Deschutes Land Trust, has guided the Bend-based conservation organization since 1997 as its executive director. The Trust has worked to protect nearly 9,000 acres of wild lands in Central Oregon. Its focus for the past two decades has been on Wychus Creek, a 41-mile waterway that originates on the slopes of Broken Top in the Three Sisters Wilderness, winding its way through the forest past Sisters before joining the Deschutes River near Crooked River Ranch.
Altered by decades of channel diversions for irrigation purposes, the creek would often dry up during the hot summer months. Today it flows year-round—and the positive news for wildlife is, salmon and steelhead are returning from a long absence.
Chalfant grew up in Kansas but spent much time in the state where he was born, often visiting the Rocky Mountain Front of Colorado. "I developed a real love for the mountains and the outdoors. That's where I felt alive," he says.
After graduating from Kansas University, Chalfant was accepted into the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, where he studied environmental law.
From there he worked in Portland in the banking and mortgage business, but he wasn't happy. Over a quality bottle of scotch, a friend changed the course of his life. "He shared the insight that life was short and you'd better be doing something that you love—something that means something to you," he said. The next day, he resigned and soon found himself bartending at Mt. Bachelor.
Still, the legal profession drew him back, and he served as Deschutes County's Property and Real Estate manager. Over the course of several meetings with friends over beers, the idea of forming a land trust to conserve and protect sensitive habitat in Central Oregon took form.
The Deschutes Land Trust was established in 1995. Chalfant served on the board of directors, but by 1997 it became apparent the organization needed an executive irector. Chalfant resigned from the board and was hired as the ED of the fledgling organization.
Whychus Creek soon became the object of Chalfant's attention. The Trust has poured over $15 million into the restoration of several sections of the creek in order to return it to its original state.
"We realized that if we could get more water in there, if we could protect the key flood plains and restore them, we could provide a tremendous amount of habitat for wildlife. We could provide recreation for fishing, birding and hiking," he said.
It took years of working with willing land owners to purchase key areas of the creek before restoration would enable the Whychus to run year-round. Early work repaired riparian conditions near Camp Polk. Last summer and early fall, work crews created a new flood plain in the Whychus Canyon Preserve, reconfigured the creek channel to a more natural state and relocated thousands of fish before flooding the new area.
Chalfant now says: "By acquiring these key flood plains and not seeing development take place, we allow the creek to spread out, rehydrate them, soak the aquifers so they, in turn, can recharge the stream when it needs it most." He continued, "It's one of those true win-wins. With the prospect of salmon and steelhead coming back, it provided us the potential to obtain the dollars to purchase properties from the landowners."
Chalfant's vision for the Whychus doesn't stop with a return of salmon and steelhead. "We're not done—whether it's in Camp Polk or one of the other properties. We see these fisheries coming back, but I want to see whole beaver colonies restoring these flood plains. And some day I hope to see sandhill cranes nesting in one of these meadows," he says.
As Chalfant sees the finish line of the Whychus restoration effort, the work of the Deschutes Land Trust will begin shifting to other projects. The Crooked River presents another opportunity. Working with Crooked River ranchers, Chalfant hopes to restore native migratory routes for mule deer and elk.
Another front will be the Upper Deschutes River where the spotted frog is endangered. Yet another focus is the Lower Deschutes, where Chalfant says much work is needed around Trout Creek. And the Trust will continue to pursue its long-standing goal to protect the 33,000-acre Skyline Forest between Bend and Sisters from residential development.
But the Whychus—a Native American word that means 'crossing'—will remain special for Chalfant. "We've been able to work across countless boundaries, whether political or organizational boundaries, and accomplished some things that really haven't happened in many other places. Whychus Creek, which 15-20 years ago, didn't run year-round and now is home to salmon and steelhead, that's a remarkable thing," he says.