Phil Wallin

Saving the Pieces

Recorded: July 25, 2013

Since the 1970s, when Phil Wallin began his career in land conservation with the Trust for Public Land, he has implemented and adapted to substantial changes in the land acquisition process.  Phil is the co-founder of the Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), an organization that is up to the challenge to save the Blue Creek watershed. The project will restore one of the most important salmon rivers in California – the Klamath River. It includes the acquisition of more than 50,000 acres of land connecting the Blue Creek tributary to the Lower Klamath River in Northern California. The Klamath River Project is a partnership with the WRC and the Yurok Indian tribe to create a salmon sanctuary and a Yurok tribal preserve. Phil discusses the complexities and progress of this large project. Who better to take on that charge?

Phillip Wallin co-founded Western Rivers Conservancy and serves as the organization’s Vice President after a 12-year tenure as President.  One of his current projects is to preserve the Blue Creek watershed, which connects to the Lower Klamath River in Northern California.  WRC is partnering with the Yurok tribe to create a salmon sanctuary and a Yurok tribal preserve.

In 1988, Phil created River Network, which housed Western Rivers Conservancy in its infancy. Prior to that he was a founding staff member of the Trust for Public Land, where he worked for 15 years.  Phil graduated from Stanford University and received his J.D. from the Chicago University School of Law.  He lives in Portland, Oregon.


Huey Johnson:  Phil Wallin, a remarkable character, a wonderful person. He went to work for me back…I think the war in Vietnam was on, just walked in the office and said, “I want to do alternative service; I’m not going to fool around going through organizations getting permission.”  I said, “We’ll give you a try.”  He went out the first day and came back with title to land people had given him. That had never been done before, nobody ever thought it possible before, but he was that talented and still is.

He runs his own organization in Portland saving rivers, river properties, and what have you. One thing I did was ask him to write a manual for training people to acquire land. He went off to law school and did it while going to law school. Had no problem passing the bar but he didn’t care for law, he wanted to work full time in environment after that and always has. The country has been very lucky to have him.

Phil Wallin: I feel like a career is spent learning the craft so that at some point you get to use it on something meaningful. And for me, that is the Klamath Project.


Phil Wallin: Everything I ever learned about buying land at The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land and my own organizations is coming to bear here. And it’s critical to the survival of the salmon runs on the Klamath and on the whole river ecosystem, because there is a cold water creek called Blue Creek, 15 miles upstream from the ocean that comes out of the fog zone in the Siskiyou Wilderness and flows into the Klamath River. And without that cold water pool, salmon would not survive. Period. Would not survive the lethal Septembers of low, warm water in the Klamath.

You’ve got to save the pieces, as I think Aldo Leopold once said. And to save the pieces, you’ve got to have a healthy Blue Creek. So we partnered with the Yurok Tribe, California’s biggest tribe, to buy 50,000 acres of redwood and doug fir land, including the lower watershed of Blue Creek, from a timber company, Green Diamond, who got tired of fighting with the tribe and said “You want to restore it, you should buy it. You should own it.” And the Yurok said, “Well that’s true.” So Green Diamond enlisted us, Western Rivers Conservancy to work with the tribe to bring the funding to the table and that’s not as easy as it used to be, quite frankly. You’ve kind of got to – funding is no longer a blanket, it’s a quilt. You’ve got to piece it together from a lot of sources, because nobody wants to be the sugar daddy; everyone wants to be there with a bunch of other funders. And you have to have the state, and you have to have the feds, and you have to have foundation money, and you have to have donors, and you kind of have to get this whole synergy going of different sources, otherwise nobody wants to be part of it, because when you’re talking 60 million bucks, you can’t get it from one source.

Huey Johnson: Have you raised the 60 million dollars for Blue Creek?

Phil Wallin: The Blue Creek, well we got an interest-free, 30-year loan for the Yurok for the first segment, 22 million dollars which is sustainable forestry and that’s from the California Water Quality Control Board for watershed protection. So that’s in place and they pay it off through the timber harvest over the long haul and through sale of carbon sequestration on the project. On the rest of it, 40 million-some, it’s going to be a combination of Wildlife Conservation Board which has it on the agenda in February, California Coastal Conservancy around the same time, sale of carbon sequestration offsets, which will be about, oh, roughly 25% of the tab and that market will mature in 2016 when transportation fuels come online; so that’ll be a huge source. And then new market tax credits will be between 20 and 25% of the total also and that requires very, very complex tax structure to take advantage of that program. All these sources have to be layered, they all carry different restrictions and timeframes, but it has to be done, you know, like heart surgery, very carefully in the right sequence. I feel like I’m up to it and it’s the last big thing I will do in my career.

You know if you’ve been around the block enough times, you’ve always got a store of experience and lessons that you can draw on to deal with these crises, a young neophyte doesn’t. That’s why we’ve got to have mentorship, we’ve got to have training, we’ve got to have, we’ve got to have things like this website you’re putting together, Huey, people can go to, because we don’t have time to learn it all ourselves. We have to learn from others. And so if you steep yourself in that experience, it gives you what you need, I think, to cope with things on the run.