A few weeks ago, the Willamette River Initiative team had the pleasure of spending a sunny evening at a farm on the banks of the Willamette, enjoying the company of many people who inspire us daily with their relentless dedication to ensuring the Willamette River is healthy enough to support our human, plant and animal communities.
It was a rare moment of respite with partners we typically only see in meeting rooms or at restoration sites, when they’re hard at work for our river. It was also bittersweet.
After 11 years, the Willamette River Initiative is ending. The gathering at Rogue Farms in Independence marked the planned conclusion of a grantmaking program that has supported these partners, and many more, in their efforts to achieve a healthier river for all.
The gains of the past decade have been nothing short of remarkable. We are in awe of our partners’ accomplishments. Naturally, there is some trepidation about the end of an initiative that has dedicated more than $20 million to Willamette River health in its lifespan. But the end of WRI is also a beginning of a new era, with the potential to take even bolder action for our river basin and the communities it supports.
When Meyer’s trustees and staff first dreamed up the Willamette River Initiative, they hoped it would seed a sustained river health movement. The initiative would build up the capacity of organizations working toward the health of our river and support them in forming partnerships to strengthen the field. Meyer hoped that by the initiative’s conclusion, these partners would continue a more robust, aligned and strategic regional effort in the future.
That vision has become a reality. In addition to working at a greater pace and scale than before, WRI grantees and partners are increasingly collaborating across organizations to achieve common goals for the river. These new partnerships are evidence of a growing river movement.
Over the past two years, Meyer has also worked with our partners in the Willamette to begin to build an independent Willamette River Network that will serve as a hub for future regional collaboration toward a healthier, more equitable river system. An impressive group of community leaders has volunteered to serve as the Network’s inaugural board of directors. And in the coming months, the board will hire two co-directors to staff this new Network.
While the board and staff will provide management and capacity, the broader Willamette community will steer the Network. As a member of this community, you have the power to shape its priorities and determine its future. A blueprint for the network developed by our advisory group serves as a starting point for an organization that will strive to set a new table that includes far more voices in the conversation about our river’s health, while centering equity and human health within its mission.
The WRI staff – Director Allison Hensey, Program Officer Cristina Watson and Program Associate Kelly House – will continue to support the conclusion of WRI and the development of the Network through the end of 2019. This includes closing out WRI’s grantmaking program; conducting a robust evaluation of WRI that will serve as a learning tool for Meyer, our partners, the Network and the broader fields of conservation and philanthropy; and assisting the Network board, staff and participants as they develop the Network’s infrastructure and identity.
We hope that by early 2020, the Network will be fully staffed and ready to launch. Meyer will continue to support the Network as a funding partner, but the Network will be community-led. Meyer will have no hand in its operations or governance.
Standing among the restoration practitioners, community advocates, farmers, researchers, government officials, business owners and others who helped us celebrate WRI’s accomplishments at Rogue Farms, it was clear that community has been the heart and soul of this initiative. Eleven years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a gathering of people with such varied backgrounds, expertise and interests, all united under the shared mission to protect and improve our river’s health. Now, it feels like second nature. With the Willamette River Network as a conduit, this community will only continue to expand and strengthen.
We look forward to seeing where the vision, leadership and effort of many will take the Willamette River health movement in the future. Thanks for inviting us along for part of the ride. It's been an honor.
All the best,
The Willamette River Initiative Team
Allison, Cristina and Kelly