How a farmer turned his fields into a wildlife sanctuary

Karl Wenner installed the wetland on 70 of his 400 acres in southern Oregon.Karl Wenner installed the wetland on 70 of his 400 acres in southern Oregon. (Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian)

By Gabrielle Canon
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd.

Karl Wenner’s Oregon land once leaked pollution into a nearby lake. Now, 70 acres are home to waterfowl, turtles and endangered fish. “This place wanted to be a wetland.”

Wenner installed the wetland on 70 of the farm’s 400 acres to help deal with phosphorus pollution that leaked into the adjacent Upper Klamath Lake after his land flooded each winter. With support from a team of scientists and advocates, the project has become a welcome sanctuary for migrating and native birds that are disappearing from the area.

Looking out at the swaying cattails and wocus plants peeking through the water on an afternoon in June, Wenner beams: “This place wanted to be a wetland.”

The “Everglades of the west”

Considered “among the most productive ecosystems in the world,” wetlands are disappearing rapidly. Roughly 80 percent around the world have already vanished. In the expansive Klamath basin that straddles the California-Oregon border, once described as the “Everglades of the west,” more than 95 percent of wetlands have been drained, diverted or dried.

With an unprecedented amount of federal funding available through the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and other government programs, Wenner and his partners are encouraging more farmers and ranchers to follow in their footsteps.

“We are demonstrating it is possible,” Wenner said. “We just have to do it on a gigantic scale.”

Along with state and locally financed initiatives, close to $5 billion in funding will be available through the Inflation Reduction Act to fund projects on agricultural land that solve conservation problems.

The benefits, Wenner says, have been almost immediate.