Standing in the midst of an uneven, muddy expanse where excavators and trucks chug back and forth like giant doodlebugs, Jesse Beers doesn’t exactly look as if he’s surrounded by a dream.

But for Beers and many other members of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians (CTCLUSI) in Coastal Oregon, it’s a dream come true: in two years, restoration of a roughly 200-acre dairy farm will be complete, transforming the land into a system of channels that’ll bring back wildlife largely absent for generations.

Some evidence of change is already visible. Beers walks over to a recently excavated site, where a small creek snakes through the marsh.

“When the rains come and the tides are at their highest, this area has a lot of inundation of water,” Beers said.

Beers is the cultural stewardship manager for the CTCLUSI. Along with the McKenzie River Trust and Siuslaw Watershed Council, the tribe has been working on the Siuslaw Estuary Restoration Project for more than a decade. In 2010, the McKenzie River Trust acquired the former Waite Ranch about three miles east of Florence, which set in motion plans to restore its pre-development splendor.

Beers says the Siuslaw Estuary Restoration Project is important to the CTCLUSI as active stewards of the lands and waters.

“Access for Indigenous folks on the landscape is also part of the stewardship role that we play,” Beers said. “We're not separate than the landscape. We're part of it. We’re still here.”

A channel of water has already formed from river seepage at the Siuslaw Estuary Restoration site outside the coastal town of Florence, Ore. Brian Bull / Underscore News

Restoration

A small team of members from the Oregon State University Fisheries and Wildlife Club came here in 2019 to plant Western red cedar, but restoration on a large scale didn’t get moving until this summer. Hunter White, an engineer with Environmental Science Associates (ESA) says on this particular phase, there are probably a dozen operators of excavators, bulldozers and heavy-capacity trucks working the estuary site.

“We started to get some of that rain and so that really has limited the ability to get into certain areas,” White said in October, as a couple excavators shoveled soil in the distance. “A lot of this site is wetland, and so the ability for construction equipment to get out into some of these areas is getting more challenging. Right now we're kind of working with a small window of dry conditions that's allowing the contractor to kind of do some final wrap up work, stabilize the bare soil surfaces, and get things seeded and stabilized for the winter.”

White says once that’s complete, they’ll pick up again next year and finish out the project. That’s also assuming there are no signs of previous inhabitants, whether that’s human remains, pottery shards, or other evidence of early Indigenous people. So far, Beers says, nothing has been unearthed.

“We're really happy that we haven't found anything because we don't want to really do anything either that's going to slow down the project at the same time,” he says. “We need to be conscious and make sure we preserve and protect any cultural resources that are found here.”

Beers says there are living cultural resources there as well. He says a large stand of silverweed is on site – that’s one of the tribes’ First Foods (the roots are edible).

“So we can harvest those and take them back home and have them for future planting or even just for First Food gathering materials,” Beers said. “I'm also looking at some white clay materials that are really good cultural resource materials as well, for making a variety of cultural things whether that'd be stone pipes or bowls.”

Restoration is a concept all too familiar to the CTCLUSI and other tribes whose status as a federally-recognized tribe was terminated by Congress in the 1950s. Motivated by the stated desire to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream culture, the U.S. government terminated 109 tribes – 60 of which were in Oregon. The terminations disrupted tribes’ operations and forced many to relinquish ownership of ancestral lands. The CTCLUSI’s status was reinstated in 1984, and tribal leaders have been working since to regain many things that were lost during those three decades.

The big hope for all the partners behind this restoration is that salmon will prosper in this area, as development, climate change and pollution have disrupted their spawning grounds and migratory patterns for decades. Besides being a traditional staple for Indigenous people across what is now Oregon, the fish also is considered a vital part of the CTCLUSI culture.

The tribe says since the mid 1800s, about 70% of Oregon’s coastal estuarine habitat has been lost to development, which has hurt the numbers of salmon and steelhead. Last year, the Siuslaw basin was closed for the entire 2022 salmon season due to forecasted low returns.

“You will see the river return – particularly at the high tides – up into this area that we're looking at right now,” said Margaret Treadwell, central coast conservation program manager for the McKenzie River Trust. It purchased the land with $750,000 funded by a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. She says working with the tribes and Siuslaw Watershed Council has provided a restoration plan that’ll make a difference.

“The river will be coming back in here bringing saltwater, creating just a nice passage for fish to come up through here and spend their juvenile time,” Treadwell said.

Excavator and heavy load trucks stand at the ready on the Siuslaw Estuary Restoration site outside the coastal town of Florence, Ore. Brian Bull / Underscore News

Reconnection

While some members of the Waite Family have mixed feelings about the transformation of their dairy farm into an estuary, Mindy Montgomery said she’s happy. Her grandparents, Allan “Bus” Howard Waite and Loretta Johnson Waite, as well as her father Joey Allan Waite all worked on the farm when she was young. Family reunions happened over the holidays, with members playing horseshoes, digging for clams, and having “ill-advised softball games in the cow pasture” which “inevitably ended with at least one sprained ankle.”

Montgomery explained that the rights to the dairy were sold in 1986 during the federal government’s Whole Herd Buyout Program, after which it transitioned to a beef cattle operation for several more years.

“My feelings of positivity come from knowing that the legacy of conservation and stewardship that were taught to me by my Dad are going to be memorialized with this restoration,” Montgomery said. Her father was active on the Siuslaw Soil and Water Conservation Board, taught hunter's safety through the Siuslaw Rod and Gun club, and was also engaged with the Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program. “He took us fishing and hunting and taught us respect for the Earth, its natural resources, and the plants, fungi, birds, fish and mammals that we share it with,” Montgomery said. “Restoration of critical waterfowl and fishery habitat makes me proud and I am very glad to hear that the tribes are getting access to their ancestral lands.”

During an earlier visit this summer, Kyle Terry, the restoration project manager for CTCLUSI, led a field tour of the estuary. Pausing the utility vehicle he drove on a small path flanked by piles of sod and clay, Terry pointed to the work done within just the first month.

“There were about six linear drainage ditches dug to accommodate the dairy ranch,” Terry said. “And we’re going to fill all those in this year, they were originally dug to drain the site so the pasture grass could be raised and cows could graze.”

Terry says a half-mile long artificial dike on the perimeter of the pasture will be lowered, and its removal will allow the Siuslaw River to reconnect with various channels at high tide. When finished, six miles of coastal habitat will be created, making a hospitable environment for salmon, steelhead, shorebirds and lamprey.

Language Revitalization

Overall, this estuary restoration feat will take two years and cost $10 million, which covers the geotechnical engineering, design, permitting, both construction phases and revegetation.

Beers is especially excited to share this experience with his teenage son, Ramil, who participated in a program called New Beginnings for Tribal Students last year, coordinated by CTCLUSI, Oregon State University and Southwestern Oregon Community College. Working with Native youth who are interested in the natural resources and sciences, participants took several traditional canoes up to the Waite Ranch site. Now the plans feature a canoe ramp, says Beers.

“And so when this project finishes up, we're looking forward to having canoe trips up here with our tribal youth and actually being able to access the property from the water in that way.”

Another significant feature will be the incorporation of the Siuslaw language. Over a dozen place names have been proposed for the restored area, including inq’a’ai chiin; ikt’at’uu chiina’muu (river returns; the place where the ikt’at’uu [Siuslaw River] comes back) and haich ikt’at’uu (heart of the Sisulaw), a reference to the shape of the land, which resembles the heart of an aluudaq’ canoe. The names were all suggested by tribal members, and a CTCLUSI committee is reviewing them as the project moves forward.

“It'll be pretty spectacular to see, especially when the artificial levee gets breached and the water comes in the way it used to,” said Beers, as a motor boat hummed up the Siuslaw River a few hundred feet away. “It's gonna be exciting for sure.”

Lead image: Jesse Beers, cultural stewardship manager for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, stands by an excavated area on the developing estuary site that's already filling with water from the nearby Siuslaw River. Brian Bull / Underscore News

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ContributorBrian Bull has been involved in journalism for 25 years and has filed for National Public Radio, the BBC, and other broadcast outlets. A proud citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe, Bull mentors up...