Student researchers at ISU have been working to improve the water quality of Marsh Creek through restoration and conservation.
The project, which is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Managing Idaho’s Landscapes for Ecosystem Services or MILES program, emerged from studies of the Portneuf River. Marsh Creek is the largest tributary of the Portneuf River and is also where the largest proportion of pollutants enter the river.
Ben Crosby, a geosciences associate professor, has been working with students to understand the biophysical nature of Marsh Creek and how the landform and biological communities surrounding it contribute towards the water quality condition in Marsh Creek, and subsequently, the Portneuf River.
But a slightly more unseen component of the project is the social science. Casey Taylor, a postdoctoral research associate, has been talking to and working with landowners around Marsh Creek in an attempt to understand the human component of the research.
The land surrounding Marsh Creek is privately owned.
“My goal is really to understand what the landowners think about [conservation] programs, how they think they could be improved, and what those landowners think about the future of Marsh Creek,” Taylor said.
She began the process of interviewing landowners this summer, with the help of two undergraduate research students. They interviewed people who had participated in the conservation program, as well as those who hadn’t and smaller landowners who don’t raise crops or animals in way to compare how different types of landowners see life around Marsh Creek and how they see the role of Marsh Creek. The interviews were also used to inform a survey to be sent out within the next few weeks to reach as many residents as possible.
According to Taylor, the landowner response has been “fairly enthusiastic.”
“The people we’ve talked to really value having land in or near Marsh Creek,” Taylor said. “Particularly the landowners that are producers enjoy having a source of water for their animals and irrigation water for their crops.”
She added that people who have participated in programs tend to be very supportive.
“What they love about [the programs] is that they provide federal dollars to do some sort of infrastructure development that will improve the conservation value of their land,” she said. “Oftentimes these projects are things that they’ve wanted to do for a long time anyway but didn’t have the financial resources to do so.”
Taylor and her team also interviewed the local managers of different federal agencies. And while these agencies take the opinions of the landowners into account, projects are oftentimes fueled just as much, if not more, by funding.
“These different programs that have happened over time tend to be the areas that the federal government has decided they’re going to fund,” Taylor said. “Some administrations will fund some programs and the next administration will choose to fund another. One thing we’ve had several landowners comment on is that they are wondering if there’s going to be funding maintained for improving things in Marsh Creek because of the current administration’s priorities.”
One of the biggest discoveries Taylor made in her research is the fact that among many of the smaller landowners, there is not a lot of knowledge about these programs or agencies. Taylor said this was something they hope to change because many of these landowners have critical land along Marsh Creek.
Some landowners own well over a hundred acres of land along Marsh Creek, which means if there was a problem with water quality happening in that area of the stream, extensive work could be done with the permission of that single landowner. The problem researchers have run into, however, is that if a problem with water quality occurs in an area of the stream which passes through multiple smaller lands, it becomes much more of a hurdle to get everyone on board.
“Those are the landowners that don’t realize these that there’s a problem in Marsh Creek and also that there are public agencies and funds available to help them as private landowners take on these projects,” Taylor said.
Additionally, the owners of these smaller plots of land typically tend to have a few animals, which in and of itself is not problematic. However, the combination of all these animals can have the same or even a larger impact than a large herd of animals that the owner of a bigger land plot might have.
“It’s very easy to think, ‘I only have two horses. I’m not the problem,’” Taylor said. “And individually, they’re not. But collectively there’s a much greater impact when you have land being broken up like this.”
Taylor also discussed how the relationships between federal agencies and people in rural areas can affect conservation efforts.
“There’s a lot of mistrust of government in these areas,” Taylor said. “So it’s trying to get a sense of where people are at in their feelings about government…to try to provide these agencies some input so that they can go into these efforts at expanding their programs more effectively.”