Everybody’s heard of crop rotation. It’s fundamental to farming. Wetland rotation is lesser known. But at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex it’s fundamental to conservation and waterfowl–habitat building.

Tule Lake Refuge in California and nearby Lower Klamath Refuge on the California/Oregon border are the only national wildlife refuges on which commercial agriculture is mandated. The Kuchel Act of 1964 requires the refuges to be “dedicated to wildlife conservation and for the major purpose of waterfowl management, but with full consideration to optimum agricultural use that is consistent therewith.”

So, the refuges host two farming programs: a rare land–lease operation and a more common cooperative venture.

The key to making both programs conservation friendly is a habitat–building tool the refuge complex developed called Walking Wetlands, or wetland rotation. It is implemented differently for each program.

Photo of the walking wetlands logo
“You love what you know, and you’ll save what you love. Klamath Basin farmers love this place, and part of this place is wildlife,” says Tricia Walker Hill, a potato farmer who participates in the Walking Wetlands program.

Land–Lease Farming

Under the land–lease program, administered by the Bureau of Reclamation, 17,000 acres at Tule Lake Refuge and 5,000 acres at Lower Klamath Refuge are commercially farmed. Private farmers grow potatoes, wheat, barley, alfalfa and onions, but no more than 25 percent of the lease lands can be in row crop at once.

Walking Wetlands gives these farmers incentives to flood their acreage on a rotating basis and/or to convert it to organic land. For instance, a lessee who floods acreage in the fall and over the winter receives a two–year extension on the lease at the original five–year lease rate. A lessee who floods acreage in the summer receives a three–year extension at the original rate. A lessee whose land goes organic receives another three–year, rate–hike–free extension.

“We’ve worked hard at not trying to mandate a thing. It’s all incentives and choices” for the farmers, says Klamath Basin Refuge Complex project leader Ron Cole. “The incentives have been successful in reducing the application of chemicals on the refuge—following goals set forth by Interior policy and the Secretary.” So far, about 20 percent of the land–lease acreage is organic.

For the refuges, the beauty of Walking Wetlands’ rotational flooding of farmland is that it provides ever–rejuvenated wetland habitat.

For the farmers, the beauty is that flooding a field for a year or two vastly improves soil nutrients, suppresses pests and eliminates the need for fumigants and fertilizers. All of this saves the farmer money, minimizes chemicals on the refuge, increases crop yield by about 25 percent and increases the value of the leases, which bring revenue to the refuges.

“If you don’t take care of the soil, the soil doesn’t take care of you,” says Bill Walker, the CEO of Walker Brothers Farm, which grows 3,000 acres of potatoes on Tule Lake Refuge. “Walking Wetlands goes hand in toe with that.”

His daughter, Tricia Walker Hill, is general counsel of Walker Brothers, whose clients include Frito–Lay and In–N–Out Burger. The Walking Wetland concept is “good for our finances and good for the community,” she says. “You love what you know, and you’ll save what you love. Klamath Basin farmers love this place, and part of this place is wildlife.”

Walking Wetlands “proves itself in this soil,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program biologist Loren Ruport. “It wouldn’t work everywhere, but generally it would work where a historical wetland left an organic base” of fertile soil.

Cooperative Farming

The cooperative farming program is administered by the Service on 4,000 acres at Lower Klamath Refuge and 2,500 acres at Tule Lake Refuge. It is similar to crop–sharing at other refuges where a farmer must leave 25 percent of the grain on refuge land as wildlife forage. But—in a Walking Wetlands twist—this program’s farmers also must flood private land elsewhere in the basin to create off–refuge wetland habitat for waterfowl.

“If you give the ground a rest and run a wetland through it, it makes sense ecologically and for wildlife. Over time, you’ll see everything thrive,” says Michael Noonan, who since 1997 has farmed about 14,000 acres, all organically, on the two refuges as part of Walking Wetlands. “I don’t know a lot, but I know when something works.”

Whether on the refuge or private land, say Cole and Noonan, Walking Wetlands mimics the flood–and–recede action that used to be natural before Klamath Basin lost 80 percent of its wetlands to human development and agriculture in the 20th century. Walking Wetlands is a win–win, they say—replenishing soil for farmers and habitat for wildlife.