On a sunny October afternoon, a dozen workers from six Eugene high-tech companies snuck out of the office early. They drove north 20 minutes, just outside Coburg, to attend a river walk fundraiser put on by the McKenzie River Trust and support its floodplain restoration project at Green Island.
Green Island is really a complex of islands at the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Much of the time, there is one large island and about seven smaller ones. When the rivers rise, dry channels fill with water and there are more islands--except during a 100-year flood, when there are no islands because everything is submerged under 10 feet of roiling muddy water.
The workers were greeted by Joe Moll, the McKenzie River Trust's executive director, who was standing under a white canopy with Nikos Ridge, event sponsor and chief executive of Ninkasi Brewing Co. While Nikos poured Ninkasi's Oktoberfest beer, Joe held a poster-sized map of Green Island and outlined the tour: Stroll downriver, learn about the area's history and restoration, then reassemble at a second beer station.
Green Island is named for the Green family who, for three generations, fought the rivers' segmentation of their farmland. During the heyday of large-scale vegetable production in the southern Willamette Valley, the Greens raised corn, beans, carrots and beets for the cannery in downtown Eugene.
Crops had to be hauled across the McKenzie River on a cable ferry. A massive flood in 1964 moved the McKenzie so it joined the Willamette four miles upstream. Access was easier, but the combined flow of the two rivers forced the Greens to install a series of dikes and revetments to protect their fields.
Joe paused the tour at a high bank along a curve in the river. The group looked down at the water sweeping past a wall of pebbles embedded in dried mud.
"The river does not follow wide curves in high water. It cuts down, cuts in, cuts from side to side." Continuing downriver, Joe said: "We're almost at the next refill station."
The McKenzie River Trust and the Green family started talking after another flood in 1996 initiated the McKenzie-Willamette Confluence Project, a public-private partnership created to develop a vision for the land.
About this time, the local vegetable market was collapsing. In 1999, Agripac, a vegetable-processing cooperative, went bankrupt; the Greens were the co-op's major shareholders. In 2001, the Eugene cannery closed. The Greens stopped farming the following year.
They could have turned the land over to gravel mining. Millennia of channel migration had deposited gravel throughout. But in 2003, Jim Green decided to sell to the trust.
"Ultimately, I would prefer to see it go back to what it used to be," Green told the local newspaper. "The thing is an absolute haven for wildlife.
"I really didn't want to see it turned into a gravel pit. "
Today, the McKenzie River Trust rightly boasts that Green Island represents "some of the least-altered fish and wildlife habitat in the Willamette Valley. " But it's taken 13 years of intensive un-altering.
Bulldozers and excavators removed levees, unplugged sediment-filled channels, recontoured bank slopes and arranged log jams across newly flowing currents. Volunteers pulled acres of invasive plants and planted more than 175,000 native trees and shrubs. Nonnative feral cats, turkeys, nutria and bullfrogs were trapped and moved elsewhere.
The active restoration aimed to kick-start passive restoration, or as Joe said, "to let the river do its thing"--punch through banks, cut new channels, topple trees, and reclaim farmland. In 2011, high water inundated the north floodplain where a levee once stood.
Chris Vogel, Green Island project manager, was on site at the time. He said that, compared to planting trees and waiting for them to grow into forest, watching the river rise and spread out into the land was a rare experience of "instant gratification" in environmental restoration.
Joe's tour ended at a gravel bar where the river rolled by in a wide, glassy run. A folding table was arranged with plastic cups of popcorn and chips. A white 1970 Volkswagen van with side door open held a cooler with more beer. Everyone refilled their cups and gathered in a circle to hear the fundraising pitches.
Cale Bruckner, president of Concentric Sky software and a McKenzie River Trust board member, said he hoped the event would "connect tech companies to the land" and highlight how the local rivers make Eugene a great place to live and work. "Tech companies want to recruit talent and keep talent. They can do this by protecting the land."
Ninkasi Brewing's Nikos spoke next.
"Making great beer takes great water. The water source for making beer here is unbeatable, pretty much anywhere in the country." He tapped the side of his cup.
"There is McKenzie River water in this beer. If you drink enough, you can walk over to the bank and give some back to the river. Or you can give back to the river by making a donation."
Jules Abbott, the McKenzie River Trust's outreach coordinator, stepped forward holding an iPad with credit card reader attached.
"We have all sorts of ways to give," she said. Before the tech workers spread out along the gravel bar to skip rocks across the river in the setting sun, Nikos pulled out a black credit card and kicked off the drive by swiping in a $1,000 donation.