By MITCH LIES
COOS BAY, Ore. -- Each fall, before the rains hit, Charlie and Sharon Waterman gather cows from two parcels they graze in the Winter Lake area of Coquille Valley and move them to higher ground.
Apart from the close calls -- times when unexpected early-season rains force the Watermans to scramble to move their cattle -- the activity has become routine for a ranch family that settled in the valley decades ago.
But the Watermans wonder how much longer they'll have access to Winter Lake grazing ground.
The Watermans have learned the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is looking to convert nearly 300 acres of the Winter Lake area to a year-round wetland.
The project, state wildlife officials say, will improve salmon and wildlife habitat and could help the Beaver Slough Drainage District obtain funding to replace aging tide gates.
And, wildlife officials say, the project will allow ranchers to continue grazing Winter Lake for years to come.
Sharon Waterman, however, is fearful the opposite is true. Waterman said she believes the project will raise groundwater levels in Winter Lake and reduce forage quality.
Also, she said, by turning the area into a wetland, ranchers can expect an increase in predatory wildlife.
"Two years ago, we had a coyote here and it killed I don't know how many lambs," she said.
And, she said, once completed, ODFW is expected to open the wetlands to recreational users, such as duck hunters.
"I don't mind that ODFW wants to use the property, but it should have no adverse effect on agriculture," she said, "and this does. It's like putting an amusement park in the middle of farm ground."
The project also raises a more universal concern over the loss of farm ground in the valley, Waterman said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in September of 2011 proposed significantly expanding the nearby Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Currently just under 900 acres, the agency is looking at growing the marsh by an additional 4,500 acres, including 2,180 acres of "priority habitats."
The agency's formal plan, which will be available for public review early next year, includes a stipulation the service will acquire land only from willing sellers. But, Waterman said, marsh expansion plans "tend to create willing sellers."
Added together, the two proposals threaten to dramatically reduce farm and ranch ground in a valley that once boasted strong dairy and ranching industries, she said.
"This is about us and the prospect that it is going to change what we have now," Waterman said in reference to the Winter Lake proposal, "but it is also about agriculture and the economy of the area."
Others, however, say Waterman's concerns don't hold water.
In reference to Winter Lake, Larry Cooper, southwest regional manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said summer and early-fall grazing will continue on much of the land targeted for wetlands conversion. And, Cooper said, the project will have no effect on adjacent landowners like the Watermans.
"We have said many times and our director has said many times that we will not affect the neighbors' properties," Cooper said.
Cooper said the department already has begun collecting data on groundwater levels in the areas.
"When we start doing some manipulations, if we see it has an affect, we will change our management so it doesn't have an effect," he said. "We want to be good neighbors."
Further, Cooper said, far from harming the economy of the area, the project could improve it.
To acquire the Winter Lake land, the department is trading idle timberland that doesn't generate property tax revenue, he said. Under terms of the trade, the timberland, at nearby Eel Lake, will convert to private ownership and likely be logged, providing timber revenue and property taxes.
Also, Cooper said, converting Winter Lake to a wetland could improve Beaver Slough Drainage District's prospects of obtaining government funding to replace the district's aging tide gates.
"It certainly could if the granting agency is looking at wetlands restoration as a component of their funding mechanism," Cooper said.
Tide gate engineer Leo Kuntz said it will cost no less than $750,000 to replace the gates, and not replacing the gates is not an option.
Without tide gates, Winter Lake "would be under water several times a week, pretty much all year," said Kuntz, who owns Nehalem Marine Manufacturing in Nehalem, Ore.
"The clock is ticking on our tide gate system, and that is a huge concern," said Fred Messerle, a Coos County commissioner and chairman of the Beaver Slough Drainage District.
Kuntz believes that far from harming the Watermans, the wetland restoration project offers the Watermans their best shot at staying on their land.
"I don't think it will hurt Sharon's property at all," he said. "In fact, there is nobody those tide gates help more than the Watermans."
Messerle said the district plans to approach Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and other sources to help fund the gate replacements.
"We'll probably have several funding sources for it," Messerle said. ODFW will work with the district to help secure funds, when and if that time comes, Cooper said.
To date, ODFW has yet to receive the authority for the land swap. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to rule on the proposal at a Dec. 6 meeting in Portland.
If the commission rejects the land swap, "We all go home and that's the end of it," Cooper said of the project.
If the commission approves it, Cooper said, the project continues.
"It is a good trade for us," Cooper said. Deed restrictions prohibit building and other activities on the Eel Lake parcel, he said, and public access to the Eel Lake parcel is nonexistent.
"The area down here," he said in reference to the Winter Lake property, "is higher value for fish and wildlife, will eventually provide viewing and other opportunities for the public and could produce increased fish returns for Coho salmon, which are an endangered species."
If the project goes forward, the department expects to seed about 240 acres of Winter Lake with native grasses, willows and other plants.
Seeding could start as soon as 2014, Cooper said.
At that point, the department likely will require ranchers to fence off seeded areas to keep out cows, Cooper said. Once the seedlings are established, Cooper said, the department anticipates re-opening the ground for grazing.
Also, he said, in unseeded areas, grazing will be allowed throughout the project.
Cooper, who previously worked with ranchers while stationed in Northeast Oregon, said he believes ranching and wildlife go hand-in-hand.
"The local agriculture around there, like almost everywhere, is extremely beneficial to wildlife," he said. "They do tremendous stuff and they should be applauded for the positive things they do for wildlife."
He said he has no intention of harming operations.
Waterman, however, isn't convinced the project won't harm her operation. There is no way, she said, the project won't raise Winter Lake's groundwater table, and subsequently lower the forage value.
Also, she said, there are no assurances the department will adapt management to lower groundwater levels if they rise. And, she said, there are no assurances the department will allow grazing back on the ground once plants are established.
"Do people want agriculture and food, or do they want wetlands?" she asked.
Tide-gate engineer Kuntz, who is a rancher, doesn't believe the choices are that cut and dried.
"To me, the future of agriculture involves being compatible with the Endangered Species Act," Kuntz said. "And this does that."