Ryan Ranch wetland plan coalesces

Forest Service wetlands restoration project southwest of Bend still has critics

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Feb 8, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Feb 8, 2014 at 12:33AM

Three years after its planned wetland restoration upstream of Dillon Falls on the Deschutes River riled irrigators, the U.S. Forest Service is close to finalizing a revised plan.

Ryan Ranch is a meadow just south of Dillon Falls, created by a berm, or wall of earth. The berm is a third of a mile long and keeps high water from the river from spilling into the meadow. The Forest Service plans to put notches into the berm, allowing the river to seasonally flow in, creating a wetland. A pilot project would precede the potential return of the wetland, during which three culverts would open the meadow to water from the river.

Forest Service officials and irrigators would then watch and see how much water is soaked into the ground, a key concern for irrigators that stalled the initial plans for Ryan Ranch in 2011. Planning for the project originally started in 2008.

“It’s really about restoring a wetland that had been in place 100 years ago, but was converted into a meadow,” said Kevin Larkin, Bend-Fort Rock district ranger with the Deschutes National Forest.

But the restoration plan still has detractors, particularly people who want to see Ryan Ranch remain a meadow. The last time wetland restoration was being planned for Ryan Ranch, an ad hoc group called the Friends of the Meadow spoke up in opposition. While the Forest Service’s changes to the Ryan Ranch plan have eased irrigators’ concerns, the worries of the Friends of the Meadow remain.

“They are going to ruin something that is whole, intact (and) beautiful,” said Laurie Bynum, of Bend, one of the leaders of the small group.

She said she is particularly concerned about mud and mosquitoes. Turning what has long been a meadow, which she said is more commonly known as the Meadow at Dillon Falls, into a wetland will result in less grass for elk to munch on and more stagnant breeding water for pesky mosquitoes.

The Deschutes River Trail currently runs along the berm that forms the meadow, and Bynum said people likely don’t know about the planned changes for the popular place.

“People come there as a destination,” she said. “It is not just a pass-through.”

The original berm that created Ryan Ranch was built sometime between 1915 and 1931, according to the Forest Service. The Bureau of Reclamation improved the berm in 1947 to keep releases upstream from the then-recently completed Wickiup Dam from flooding the meadow.

If the pilot project is successful, the Forest Service plan calls for rerouting a quarter-mile of the trail through Ryan Ranch and the installation of boardwalks. Larkin said the transition of the meadow, which is already used as an outdoor classroom for school kids, to a wetland could be an educational opportunity.

“It will be a neat experiment,” Larkin said.

Another member of the Friends of the Meadow, Cheryl Buck, of Sedona, Ariz., said she’d rather see the meadow remain as is. Bynum and Buck, who lived in Bend for eight years before moving away in 2011, said the meadow has been around long enough that elk, coyotes, hawks and other animals depend on it. The two women said the Forest Service would be destroying the meadow to make the wetland.

“I don’t believe they are restoring a wetland,” she said. “I think they are creating a wetland.”

Larkin said the Forest Service has evaluated the effects of the project and still plans to go ahead with it.

“We do recognize that this is a project that comes with certain impacts, and to this point we’ve accepted those impacts,” Larkin said.

The project has the support of irrigators and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

The restored 65-acre wetland could be habitat for the Oregon spotted frog, which is being considered for possible threatened species protection under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Steve Johnson, chairman of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, an association of seven Central Oregon irrigation districts.

“So we are totally in support of it,” he said.

Still, he said the districts will want to see how much water seeps into the ground. He said the estimate is the wetland would take about 300 to 500 acre-feet of water from the river, but the pilot project is needed to confirm the numbers. An acre-foot is enough water to submerge an acre of land a foot deep in water.

He said his hope is to have the Forest Service finish its plan, which is currently up for objection by people who earlier commented on draft plans, and have water flowing onto Ryan Ranch by the start of irrigation season, which begins April 1.

The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council will be raising money for the restoration, said Ryan Houston, the group’s executive director. He said the cost isn’t known yet.

“What we are interested (in) is restoring wetlands,” he said. “And Ryan Ranch is a place where there used to be historic wetlands.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

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