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Restoring Desolation Creek: Forestry for the 21st Century

Photo courtesy of EFM, showing their investors touring Aspen stand restoration on the Desolation Creek property.
 
Abstract: Ecotrust Forest Management (EFM) is a real-asset investment manager founded in 2004 that invests in climate-smart forestry to create long-term financial value and enduring environmental and social impact. Five years ago, EFM Fund II aquired Desolation Creek, a compelling opportunity for EFM to create ecological uplift and restore Desolation Creek and associated tributaries, springs and wetlands. The natural carbon rich forests on the property were degraded by decades of overharvesting, livestock grazing of its fragile springs, meadows and stream-side habitats, and the unforeseen effects of fire suppression. EFM embarked on an ambitious restoration plan addressing upland, riparian, and meadow habitats that involves dozens of partners including the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians, the U.S. Forest Service and the North Fork John Day Watershed Council. Desolation Creek is a manifestation of EFM’s core belief that managing forests for the full array of products and services, driven by a clear and collective goal of a healthy, functioning, intact landscape, provides the best outcomes for the land, for the communities that surround it and for long-term value creation.

Why EFM Fund II Acquired Desolation Creek

This year marks the five-year anniversary of EFM’s Fund II’s acquisition of Desolation Creek, a 13,300 mixed conifer property in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon.  We were drawn to the property’s spring-fed salmon spawning streams which feed the John Day River, the 3rd longest free-flowing river in the contiguous U.S., and its surrounding landscape of protected public forest. We were also enticed by the productive potential of its meadows, streams, and forest and the passionate interest in the property by public agencies, conservation groups, and tribes. In addition, the potential to increase the value of the property to surrounding communities, many of which are severely economically distressed, was deeply compelling.

The property is haunted by decades of overharvesting of its forests and livestock grazing of its fragile springs, meadows and stream-side habitats, and the unforeseen effects of fire suppression. These springs, which produce cold water vital to salmonids, were trampled by cattle, causing warming and siltation. In addition, creeks have been channelized, constrained and disconnected from their productive network of side channels. Repeated denuding of riparian vegetation reduced shade, further raising water temperatures, while decreasing food for aquatic and riparian animals. In the uplands, large Ponderosa Pine, the fire-resistant climax tree of mixed conifer forests, had been replaced by stands of suppressed, stagnating, and fire-prone lodgepole pine across much of the property.

EFM Embarks on Ambitious Restoration Plan

With grit and resolve, EFM has embarked on an ambitious restoration plan addressing upland, riparian, and meadow habitats and involving dozens of partners including the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the U.S. Forest Service, the North Fork John Day Watershed Council, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Savory Institute and many others. Our objective has been to increase the ecological, social and financial value of the property through active restoration including fencing livestock away from sensitive riparian and meadow habitats, thinning overcrowded stands, creating a shaded fuel break to protect the property from fires spreading from neighboring properties, protecting cold water springs, working with ranchers on planned rotational grazing to enhance soil and forage, restoring aspen stands, enhancing campsites for public use, and improving upland and riparian habitat for species of interest. Over the course of these activities, EFM and our partners have raised over $2M to fund restoration and conservation activities on the property.

Photo courtesy of EFM, showing wildlife now thriving on Desolation Creek property.

One of the most exciting initiatives has been the restoration of Desolation Creek and associated tributaries, springs and wetlands. The Desolation watershed has been a priority for the Umatilla Tribes under their First Foods initiative. Until the early 1990s, the culture of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indians – the three tribes that form the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians – was based on hunting, fishing and foraging for salmon, roots, berries, deer and elk. The Desolation watershed was an important part of this foodscape. Protecting and enhancing the availability and quality of the First Foods also ensures a healthy, intact, productive upland and riparian habitat – without cold, clean water, there is no salmon; without healthy, functioning meadows with native plants there are no roots, or forage for deer and elk. 

During EFM’s acquisition diligence of the property, the Umatilla approached us with an ambitious and holistic plan to restore Desolation Creek. We entered into a Riparian Easement and the Tribe commissioned an extensive Restoration Plan, which provided the blueprint to reconnect the creek to its floodplain, establish native riparian plantings, introduce large logs into the streams to slow water flows and create pools so important to juvenile salmon. Reach by reach, the restoration efforts are reversing decades of grazing impacts by sheep and cattle. At the same time, water troughs have been built outside of sensitive areas to accommodate the needs of livestock.

Turning Back the Clock: Reversing Decades of "High Grade" Logging

Equally important has been the effort to reverse decades of “high grade” logging which removed the largest and most valuable trees, creating thickets of stunted trees while changing species composition away from naturally more fire-resistant species like Western Larch and Ponderosa pine. Our strategy has been to thin the stands, leaving behind the larger, healthy, resilient trees that put the forest on a trajectory towards the desired future condition. This desired future condition is a diverse, complex, and resilient forest mosaic featuring fire- and insect-resistant native species, large trees and snags for habitat, and a healthy understory of shrubs and plants. It is informed by historical conditions, under the premise that thousands of years of evolutionary history provide useful information on future performance, combined with the best science and traditional knowledge on restoring mixed conifer forests.  Along the way, this forest management approach is estimated to increase carbon stocks by 50-80% while significantly reducing fire risk and producing a future flow of valuable timber, managed and harvested sustainably under the guidelines of the Forest Stewardship Council.

Five years into EFM’s Fund II ownership and management, there are thriving populations of elk, deer, bear, bobcat, chinook salmon, bull trout, long-toed salamanders and many other species, including a breeding pair of wolves. Through an arrangement with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the property is open to the public for recreation, foraging and hunting, providing food and other benefits to local communities, many of which are economically distressed, while the agency provides funding and monitoring. Meanwhile, as of the last appraisal in 2018, the property has increased in value since acquisition. Desolation Creek is indeed a manifestation of EFM’s core belief that managing forests for the full array of products and services, driven by a clear and collective goal of a healthy, functioning, intact landscape, provides the best outcomes for the land, for the communities that surround  it and for long-term value creation.

This is a guest post by the EFM Fund II Team
 

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