Nature Conservancy works to restore Oklahoma’s Blue River

The Nature Conservancy is working to restore Oklahoma’s Blue River by planting thousands of native trees nearby.

The work, which has roots in Tulsa, is part of a greater effort to protect the river for future generations.

The Blue River flows more than 140 miles through southern Oklahoma. It supports more than 80 different fish species. Other wildlife and people also depend on it.

And it’s part of John Moody’s yard. The land has been owned by his family for four generations.

“We are very proud stewards of this little piece of what we think is heaven here on the Blue River,” said Moody.

That paradise needs to be protected, says The Nature Conservancy, Chickasaw Nation, and other partners. Together they are working to “restore” the river.

“It’s actually a very high quality river. But we don’t want to see it degraded or of poor quality,” said Jeanine Lackey with The Nature Conservancy. She is the project director for Arbuckle Plains and Blue River.

“Right now, the top of the Blue isn’t in trouble, but let’s not expect them to be in trouble,” said Chickasaw Nation Director of Natural Resources Kris Patton.

Over the past 200 years, The Nature Conservancy has claimed that native trees have been felled and the land around the river has been turned into hay meadows, opening the door to problems such as erosion.

Now The Nature Conservancy is taking steps to breathe new life into the river by addressing its historical roots in the soil.

TNC planted 4,001 trees in 2020 along a small part of the river. This was the second summer of trees in the ground.

The Nature Conservancy was strategic about what to plant. Scientists and volunteers planted 14 different types of trees and shrubs in the ground. All the plants came from Southwood’s in Tulsa.

The nursery grew the seedlings and shrubs based on a plant list from the TNC and the Oklahoma Biological Survey, which shows what would have been native to the earth.

Lackey and TNC Watershed Health Director Kim Elkin are waiting for cottonwood, oak, pecan and more to grow.

“Eventually they will become really big trees,” Lackey said. “And all those roots help keep that ground in place. And that just helps us get that system back to the way it was historically.”

And that, the scientists said, will eventually have a downstream impact. The city of Durant depends on the Blue River for all its water. So does the Choctaw Nation. The Nature Conservancy expects the work it is doing now to save the city money because the water won’t need as much treatment.

But the reality is that it will take decades to see the impact.

“It will just take a long time,” Lackey said. “But this is the business we are in, you know? We are restoring ecosystems that have taken decades to degrade. And it will take decades to become resilient.”

The Nature Conservancy is doing this work where it can, along a mile of the Blue River it owns. But most of the land along the river is owned by private landowners.

“As you see the Blue today, it is not as blue as it normally is. It has a bit of a sediment load in it, due to the recent rains. And so it tells us we still have work to do here. There is work to be done. do accomplished with landowners, ”Patton said.

Patton works directly with landowners to help them manage their land.

“It’s not a regulatory function. We’re not telling landowners what to do,” he said. “We’re just saying that if there is a practice, a management best practice that you want to implement, we will work with through this group to figure out how to get it funded.”

Patton points to Moody as an example of someone leading the way.

“I think the balance that ranchers, landowners (and) land stewards face is the expense of something as aggressive as planting trees. Not everyone can afford to do that,” Moody said.

One thing he’s actually doing is removing some trees from his property: the invasive eastern red cedar.

“There’s nothing growing here; it’s all cedar leaves that are dead,” Moody said, pointing to the land on part of his property.

“Removing and restoring it gives you more grazing acres and also improves the habitat within the riparian area,” Patton said.

“Exactly,” Moody said.

Moody showed News On 6 part of his property where he had removed the cedars. The difference in the terrain is obvious: it is lush and green, rather than barren.

It’s just one example of what Moody is doing to improve this ecosystem because The Nature Conservancy can’t do it alone.

“I hope my granddaughters look at it the same way and look after it when it’s their turn to make decisions,” Moody said.

The Nature Conservancy said the reason it is able to carry out this $ 3 million restoration project is due to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

Federal legislation, including the Clean Water Act, requires transportation departments to restore wetlands and waterways if road and bridge construction work has had a permanent impact.

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