The power of partnerships: Landscape-scale restoration in the Tualatin Valley

Last spring, The Intertwine Alliance asked the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) to assess the impacts of collaborative conservation partnerships in the greater Portland area, with a focus on ecological, social, and economic outcomes. Known as the Intertwine Metrics project, the study also aimed to identify key characteristics of collaborative partnerships—and their challenges. I was tapped to lead the interdisciplinary research team, which also included Alice Brawley-Chesworth, Ph.D. student in Urban Studies, Margaret Burant, GIS certificate program graduate student, and Christina Peterson, volunteer Research Assistant Professor with ISS.

Jackson Bottom Wetlands PreserveThe Intertwine Alliance, a coalition of more than 150 partnering organizations, has a vision of building a region-wide system of green spaces, trails, and working lands that provides a diversity of ecosystem services—social, economic, and ecological—to the greater Portland-Vancouver area. The Intertwine Alliance operates on the assumption that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and works to achieve its vision by supporting collaborative conservation and conservation education partnerships. With the Intertwine Metrics Project, we sought to test this assumption, as well as to identify ways in which the alliance could best support its partners.
 

The Intertwine Metrics project focused on the Tree for All (TFA) program in the Tualatin River watershed. All TFA projects include a restoration component, with some focused on getting trees in the ground or restoring native vegetation and others emphasizing environmental education. To capture this diversity, our team examined three restoration case examples in depth, including a Rural Landowners Incentives Program and projects in the Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve and the Fanno Creek Greenway area. We also developed three mini-case studies that explored the role of volunteers in TFA projects. Overall, we interviewed 34 key informants representing federal and local government agencies, environmental groups, and community-based organizations. Financial support for our study came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge and Clean Water Services, a special-purpose utility district responsible for wastewater collection and treatment and storm water services within the urbanized portion of Washington County.

Clean Water Tree Farm Our results supported The Intertwine Alliance’s assumption that partnering enables organizations to more effectively achieve their goals. Although some restoration likely would have occurred in the Tualatin River watershed without the presence of a collaborative partnership network, it would have happened at a much slower pace and smaller scale. One of our interview subjects told us, “We chipped away a bit before but now are doing restoration at an order of magnitude greater.” Another said, “We do a lot more with partnerships. If we had to do it alone, it would take us a lot longer.”

A unique feature of TFA is that a series of autonomous and loosely connected collaborative partnerships focused on restoration have, in aggregate, succeeded in achieving significant improvements in ecological conditions over much of the Tualatin River watershed. This has happened in the absence of highly formalized project planning and implementation structures. Some likely contributing factors to the success of individual TFA partnerships, as well as their success in aggregate, are:

 

  • Organizational cultures of partner organizations conducive to collaboration and experimentation
  • A critical mass of collaborative-minded partners
  • Presence of a common mental model developed through a consensus process
  • Partners with complementary resources and skills
  • Connections into and engagement with local communities
  • Stable and diverse sources of funding

Importantly, these collaborative projects provided multiple benefits to the broader community that encompassed much more than environmental improvements. Just a few of these benefits are: health benefits associated with a cleaner environment; mental health benefits associated with connecting community volunteers with nature; educational opportunities for schools and their students; and lower greenspace maintenance costs, freeing funds up to support the provision of other services. In short, investments in collaborative partnerships in the Tualatin River watershed have yielded a stream of benefits to a broad segment of the area’s population.

I presented the study’s findings at The Intertwine Alliance’s 2017 Fall Summit in October, a forum that brings together groups working on conservation throughout the region. Additionally, our study informed the development of The Intertwine Alliance’s Our Common Ground webpage, which features multimedia stories from Intertwine Alliance partners, a multimedia essay about TFA, and the study report, Exploring the Relationship between Collaborative Partnerships and Outcomes. ISS is also working with Clean Water Services to develop a landscape-scale restoration workshop for the U.S. chapter of the International Association for Landscape Ecology’s Annual Meeting in Chicago in April 2018.

Although the exploratory study on the power of partnerships is done, the work on strengthening collaborative partnerships continues. ISS is partnering with The Intertwine Alliance, Clean Water Services, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during winter and spring 2018 to develop a year-long action-research project aimed at helping organizations engaging in collaborative partnerships diagnose where they are located along the sustainability transition curve and to identify the types of support they need to move further along that curve.

Dr. Rebecca McLain, Research Assistant Professor with ISS.

Related materials:

Austin, J. 2003. Strategic alliances: Managing the collaboration portfolio. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Summer: 49-55.

Himmelman, A. 2015. The four shared Rs of collaboration.

Porter, L., Roll, B., Kapur, R., and Devnani, A. 2014. Water quality and temperature trading in the Tualatin basin: Ten years of community-driven watershed health efforts. The Water Report 123: 8- 14.