Balancing Farming and Fish Habitat: An Introduction to the Oregon Wetlands Bill

Young dairy cows along Mill Creek in the Trask River floodplain. This parcel of land has been leased as pasture for many years, but because it is zoned as rare “industrial” land, it is destined for development. This illustrates one of the of the many ways in which Tillamook farmers are feeling the squeeze.

Tillamook’s dairy farming industry is faced with an ever-shrinking base of local farm land. As parcels of land change hands, they are often converted to uses other than farming. Some parcels are developed into residential, commercial or industrial areas, and others are reclaimed as wetlands for salmon habitat. This fundamental business problem is not unique to Tillamook. It’s a hot topic in every agricultural center in America, and it has spawned repeated calls for legislative solutions to preserve farm land.

Baby salmon like these Chinook need healthy, connected wetlands to survive their early years. But wetlands restoration can mean a loss of farm land to the County.

Conversely, most of the vital floodplains and tidal wetlands of Tillamook County, which once reared abundant classes of juvenile salmon, were diked and gated off from natural function during the dairy industry’s expansion from the 1890s to the 1960s. Fisheries scientists point to the resulting lack of rearing habitat as a primary factor in the dramatic reduction of coho and Chinook salmon runs. Coastal coho returns today are less than 10% of their historical numbers, and it is this problem that has motivated the state of Oregon to invest tens of millions of dollars into salmon habitat restoration. So when a parcel of farm land goes up for sale, conservation organizations are obliged to consider the potential ecological benefits of reclaiming that land for fish. This, not surprisingly, can put farmers and fish restorationists in the wrestling ring.

Oregon’s 2016 legislative session produced the first substantive progress toward brokering a solution to this  problem with the approval of Senate Bill 1517, sometimes called the Oregon Wetlands Bill. This new legislation designates Tillamook County as the site for a 10-year pilot project to negotiate future land use in our floodplains and tidelands. The process will bring farmers and conservationists together to develop a framework for determining which of our lowlands are critical for the stability of the farming industry and which are appropriate for wetlands restoration. It will also create a system for The Oregon Senate expects that the results of this pilot project will eventually be rolled out state wide.

Join the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council the evening of September 27th for an introduction to the SB 1517 process by Chad Allen and Hilary Foote. Chad Allen is a renowned dairy farmer on the Wilson River, and a member of the Tillamook County Planning Commission. Hilary Foote is a Planner at the Tillamook County Community Development Department and the project manager for the SB 1517 process. The presentation will be held from 6:30PM to 7:30PM in the Hatfield Room at the Tillamook County Library, 1716 3rd Street in downtown Tillamook. This event is free and open to the public!


Don’t miss your chance to hear about this historic effort from the people who are planning the future of Tillamook County. The Council’s regular monthly business meeting will follow the presentation, including updates on local habitat restoration efforts. For more information call (503) 322-0002.

Memaloose 2
Prime tidal wetlands at the head of Tillamook Bay demonstrate the type of habitat that young salmonids rely upon for strong rearing.

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