The McKenzie River Trust was founded in 1989 and incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, public benefit organization in 1990. Since then we have grown to be a regional land trust, conserving and protecting more than 5,000 acres of land in western Oregon.
McKenzie River Trust History
In the late 1980s, local land-owner Tom Bowerman and environmental leader Bob Doppelt brought together a group of concerned citizens interested in protecting the McKenzie River from development and preserving the river’s exceptional water quality for future generations. From a small, rent-free, shared office in the attic above the Down to Earth store in Eugene’s Farmers Union Building, still holding on to the odor of grain processed there years before, the Board of Directors came together to sign the McKenzie River Trust’s Articles of Incorporation.
The land trust’s steady growth over its first ten years echoed its humble beginnings. The organization focused on its core mission: to protect riparian areas on the McKenzie that were vital to the river’s biological integrity and water quality. The Trust’s first land acquisitions, the Smith Property and the Horse Creek/Drury Forest property, were purchased in 1992 and 1994 respectively and later sold to the Forest Service.
Through these projects, the McKenzie River Trust proved it could serve as a go-between for private landowners and federal departments, reflecting its agility in responding to situations more quickly than larger agencies. This approach – dubbed the ‘partner assist’ – was a key tool in MRT’s early years.
Operating as an all-volunteer organization throughout the 1990s, MRT slowly but steadily made a name for itself throughout the McKenzie River watershed. The land trust’s first conservation easement was donated by George Grier and Cynthia Pappas for 11 acres on the lower McKenzie in a floodplain landscape criss-crossed with main channel backwaters and sloughs. This easement would later be linked to an adjacent acquisition, Big Island.
The Trust began to seek out conservation projects with a landscape level impact. Land holdings acted as a string of pearls: rich habitat parcels were connected by the river flowing between them. As the Trust’s knowledge of the range of tools for land conservation grew, so did its reputation as a stable, professional organization that sought common ground with local landowners.
Throughout this period, the Board of Directors committed substantial time and effort towards strategic planning for the organization’s future. As early as 1992, the land trust had been considering whether to expand its service area beyond the McKenzie River watershed. In 2000, with support from the Land Trust Alliance, the Oregon Community Foundation, and the Spirit Mountain Community Fund, MRT launched the Many Rivers Program to expand operations to seven additional watersheds in western Oregon. This expansion allowed the Trust to provide professional services from the Cascade mountains to the Oregon coast. Since 2000, our service area has included the watersheds of the Long Tom, Upper Willamette, Coast and Middle Forks of the Willamette, Umpqua, Siuslaw, and coastal streams and lakes from Reedsport to Yachats. In 2021, we expanded our coastal service area to stretch from Reedsport north to Lincoln City, and opened our first field office in Newport.
The Trust made the front page of Eugene’s Register-Guard newspaper in November 2001 when biologists from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Willamette National Forest discovered an endangered fish called Oregon chub on Big Island’s Grier/Pappas easement. Although the scientists had expected to find native fishes in their routine survey of the property’s side channels and backwaters, the Oregon chub discovery was a huge surprise. Oregon chub were last documented in the McKenzie River in 1899 and were considered extinct in the watershed. The scientists hypothesized that thanks to its incredible backwater sloughs, large logs and deep, cold pools the Big Island property had been a safe haven for the chub for many years. Biologists spent four days catching and releasing over 250 Oregon chub, documenting a viable population of the fish. The discovery on the Big Island site made this Trust holding even more important than originally thought.
Back in 1990, the McKenzie River Trust’s founders began discussions with the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), to explore how the local utility mitigate the impact of its dam projects on local wildlife and natural systems by working with MRT to protect lands in the watershed. MRT Board members worked diligently to build relationships with EWEB and other agencies throughout the region.
This legwork came to fruition in 2000 when EWEB awarded MRT a matching grant of $1 million for land protection in the McKenzie watershed. In 2003 the EWEB grant and a contribution from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) were used to purchase Green Island. The property’s protection was the McKenzie River Trust’s most significant success to date, conserving about 1,000 acres at the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers just north of Eugene/Springfield. The EWEB funds provided leverage for an additional $3.8 million which have been invested in the Lower McKenzie River.
Along with over 430 acres of adjacent lands owned by federal and state agencies, Green Island contributes to a swath of more than 1,300 contiguous acres protected in perpetuity. This area is one of the richest and most diverse floodplain, riparian, and wetland habitats in western Oregon.
The purchase of Green Island also broadened the land trust’s mission. Now that the organization owned a significant parcel, land restoration and stewardship became a part of our identity. In 2003, the Green Island Technical Team, made up of biologists, botanists, hydrologists, and various consultants was assembled to provide support for the creation of a land restoration plan. In 2008, the Trust hired a Green Island Project Manager to oversee the stewardship, restoration, and protection of the Green Island property. By this time, the Trust had grown to a full time staff of five.
The Trust kicked off a multi-year series of tree plantings on Green Island in 2006, bringing hundreds of community members out to volunteer. By 2009, 35,000 trees had been planted across nearly 200 acres of the property. Thanks to investments of time and funding from many partners, the transition of this farmland to a healthy natural area is well-underway. Green Island is an anchor site for the McKenzie River Trust, and we intend to protect and restore a robust ecosystem with a mosaic of historic habitats and special creatures to benefit future generations.
The McKenzie River Trust Today
In 2009, the Trust kicked off celebrations for its 20th Anniversary by hosting renowned writer, McKenzie River resident, and Trust supporter Barry Lopez for a reading at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. This outreach and fundraising event has become The Living River, the McKenzie River Trust’s signature annual event celebrating the deep, complex relationships between rivers and communities through the arts and humanities.
Also in 2010, following several years of internal and external review, the McKenzie River Trust was awarded national accreditation by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance. Accreditation is a mark of distinction, recognizing land trusts that have met national standards for excellence. MRT’s accreditation indicates to supporters and partners that we uphold the public trust and ensure that our conservation efforts are permanent.
Today, the Trust’s staff has grown to fourteen members. Our backgrounds vary, from science, research, and real estate, to volunteerism, fundraising, and nonprofit administration. Our Board of Directors is made up of experts in law, land use planning, nonprofit management, natural resources, outdoor recreation, and biology. The professionals who serve on our committees and technical teams are experts in the sciences, fundraising, and finance. Our supporters are like us: committed to a future where intact, functioning ecosystems provide clean water, abundant fish and wildlife, and productive natural landscapes throughout western Oregon.
See clips from the history and story telling event series McKenzie Memories about life on the McKenzie River though the years.