The USDA is Trying to Help Save Native Grassland in Oregon

Cattle grazing in Wallowa County, Oregon.

Julia Amato for The Nature Conservancy

The USDA recently gave $225 million in federal funding to 88 environmental projects across the country, including a program in Oregon to help improve the soil health in Wallowa County, home to the Zumwalt Prairie, one of the last intact native grasslands of its kind in the United States.

The prairie consists of about 330,000 acres of native grassland that once covered 10 million acres stretching across the Pacific Northwest. Today, the prairie is mostly owned by area ranchers and farmers, along with The Nature Conservancy, which owns about 40,000 acres in Wallowa County.

The goal of the project is to create opportunities for private landowners to apply integrated crop and livestock production systems to improve soil health while reducing the use of chemical inputs, increase water efficiency, and prevent the further fragmenting of the native grasslands.

The Nature Conservancy, a charitable environmental organization headquartered in Virginia, is the project’s lead partner. They’re joined by local non-profits Wallowa Land Trust and Wallowa Resources, along with thef USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

According to Jeff Fields, The Nature Conservancy Project Manager for the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, the approach involves finding the sweet spot between ecology and the local economy.

“We’ve been focusing on not just the ecology of a place but the economy as well and socioeconomic issues that surround management by private owners,” says Fields in a phone interview with Modern Farmer. “Wallowa County has an awful lot of innovative farmers and ranchers who are thinking about soil health, supply-chain diversification—including grass-finished beef products—and getting away from commodity markets.”

The project hopes to help the farmers and ranchers achieve those goals in several ways, including changing livestock grazing practices to short-duration rotational grazing and the introduction of  multi-species forage crops, such as root vegetables; better water management through practices like pivot irrigation; and the application of biochar to farm fields, an ancient technique of applying a fine-grained charcoal made from agricultural waste to improve soil health and water retention.

The other part of the plan involves creating Agricultural Conservation Easements, a NRCS program that prevents agricultural land from being converted to non-agricultural uses, like residential development. In Wallowa County, The Nature Conservancy believes that through this program they will be able to prevent as much as 17,000 acres from being converted to other uses.

The more than $3 million in federal money was made available through the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which was part of the 2014 Farm Bill. The program was created to help in the restoration and sustainable use of natural resources at the regional level. Along with matching funds and additional investment of more than $3.5 million, Fields says the project is “enough of a focused investment that it will significantly create opportunities” for ranchers and farmers to get involved and “help put their ideas into practice.”

“What’s driving their interest is lower input costs and finding opportunities for access to different markets. They’re also just excited about what they see growing as they improve their soil health and change from monocultures to polyculture cropping. They’re excited by what they see happening out there—bird and insect life, the health of their soil, they’re tickled by it,” he says. “To be able to be a part of bringing that to the table is really pretty cool and we’re really looking forward to working on this.” 

The USDA is Trying to Help Save Native Grassland in Oregon