“At one time there were 2,000 sheep on this land,” shares Phil Estergard from his Junction City home on an overcast morning in early March. “I started with sheep around 1960. We got into cattle when the coyotes finally ran us out.” Phil chuckles slightly, reminiscing over more than five decades that kept him busy 80 miles from home on the North Fork of the Siuslaw River.
Ranching in tidal wetlands required ongoing work. From bridge maintenance to regular repairs of the dikes that stopped water from flooding out the pastureland, it was enough to keep a person busy. “It was fun working on those dikes,” Phil smiles. “There are only a few tides out of the whole year when you can do that work and once you start, you have to get it finished.” Now in his 80s he’s no longer interested in dike repair. “I had always imagined making a gift of a property,” he notes. “I used to joke that if I ever won the lottery I would give the land away. I don’t play the lottery so it was a hollow promise. I like the idea of being able to make this gift now.”
In March of 2023, the Estergard family donated 89 of their original 300 acres of farmland on the North Fork of the Siuslaw River to McKenzie River Trust. The site, located a few miles upstream from the confluence with the mainstem Siuslaw River, provides important habitat for native species including Coho Salmon, lamprey, and waterfowl. Protecting tidal wetlands is an important step in preserving and recovering salmon populations in the Siuslaw Watershed, which was unexpectedly closed to salmon fishing in 2022 due to low returns. Having spent years building a living on this land, it’s reassuring to the family that the area can now support salmon, local fishing economies, and the livelihoods that depend on them.
“He’s always been like this,” says his daughter Karla as she smiles at her father across the room. “If someone needs something more than him, he gives it to them. This area is worth money and we could have sold it but we thought, ‘who is this worth the most to?’ We decided to donate it.” Phil laughs when I tell him that I think the area is a beautiful example of functioning wetlands. “Well, I’m glad you think so,” he chuckles. “I think it’d look a lot better with cattle on it, but it’s good to know that someone appreciates how it is now.”
Over the coming years, McKenzie River Trust will work with our partners here and on nearby sites to restore tidal function to the landscape. This work is part of a regional vision to protect and restore Coho Salmon populations through the Siuslaw Coho Partnership. Thanks to the generosity of Phil and his family, there is renewed opportunity for the recovery of Coho Salmon so that families and fisherfolk can keep their lines in the water for generations to come.