Cliff Hall – Leaving things better than he found them

Cliff Hall in Kings Valley © T. Matteson

This article has five authors: Donna Schmitz, Teresa Matteson, Heath Keirstead, Laura Brown, and Holly Crosson.

On June 30, 2019, Dr. Clifford Hall resigned from Benton SWCD’s Board of Directors, on which he had served since 2003. During his tenure, the District developed a high quality budgeting process and grew our staff from 2 to 6 FTE, in no small part due to a successful campaign to secure a tax levy. Cliff helped tremendously with the “Nickel for Conservation” campaign, which provides consistent funding for our programs. Funding and budgeting, as important as they may be, are not at the top of the list of contributions Cliff has made to this community. In the story that follows, Benton SWCD staff explore what we consider his most significant legacy: his substantial efforts to leave “a corner of the world a better place” for current and future generations of humans and wildlife in Benton County.

Cliff’s journey with the District started back in 2000, when then-newly-employed Resource Conservationist Donna Schmitz was invited to Cliff and Gay Hall’s Luckiamute Meadows Farm…

By the time I visited the farm in Kings Valley, Cliff had already invited a cadre of natural resource professionals to give advice on the best restoration techniques to heal the land they had just purchased. The sheep had just been removed after years of grazing and access to a half mile of Maxfield Creek and a mile stretch of the property where it touches the Luckiamute River. The only vegetation along Maxfield Creek able to survive the hungry sheep were old deteriorating cottonwoods, maples, and a few white alders.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Ducks Unlimited played key roles in coordinating pond development and planting wildlife food plots. US Fish and Wildlife brought in several loads of Douglas-fir boles taken from an oak thinning at the Finley Wildlife Refuge. Tom Finnegan, with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, asked me along to advise Cliff on the farming he wanted to continue on two fields on the north and south side of Maxfield Creek. Cliff was one of the first landowners I worked with since starting with the District. He was about the third Benton County landowner to sign up for a new federal farm program called the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). The Halls’ property was an ideal candidate to achieve the goals of CREP by: 1) keeping domestic animals out of the waterways with fencing and 2) lowering water temperatures by planting native trees and shrubs to shade the streams.

Cliff diligently filled out the CREP questionnaire of perceived resource concerns and identified his objectives for the land, which were to “protect the riparian zones, provide the best use of the land, create a natural preserve, with minimal grazing to enjoy wildlife, scenic/pastoral beauty, a place to spend ‘idle hours!’ and create a wildlife park/preserve.” He wrote that in five years he wanted his place to look like a “restored old homestead with pastoral setting, plant and animal diversity.” When asked why he wanted a conservation plan, he wrote, “to assist in planning input and use all available experience. To make a corner of the world a better place.”

Cliff came down to the water’s edge with Tom Finnegan and me to sample the invertebrates in the stream channel. He crossed the stream gingerly, walking on top of the old downed cottonwood spanning Maxfield Creek. His comment, “they rot from the inside” deterred me from even trying that feat! Since Maxfield Creek was too incised to install a low water stream crossing, we applied to the Farm Service Agency to pay for installation of an old railroad flatbed car to span the creek. It was approved along with two watering facilities to pump water into the pastures. NRCS provided the technical design for the installation of the bridge, which increased its cost significantly. As a result, the bridge, which now spans Maxfield Creek was the first and last bridge approved by FSA for the CREP program in Oregon.

railroad bridge at Luckiamute Meadows Farm
Railroad car bridge across Maxfield Creek

We analyzed his pastures for productivity and recommended continuing with combinations of renting, haying, and grazing. We met with Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) about what species of riparian trees and shrubs to plant. As ODF did in the early stages of the CREP program, they recommended a large percentage of Douglas-fir be planted. Cliff looked at the remaining vegetation along Maxfield Creek and Luckiamute River and decided he wanted more deciduous trees in the mix of species. A tree planting contractor was invited to make a bid for the planting the next spring. Unfortunately, the contractor told Cliff that they weren’t a landscaping firm that plants a variety of trees, they were experienced in Douglas-fir plantations only. Since no other contractor could be found for the task at hand, Cliff, his neighbors, and some volunteers planted more than 10,000 trees over two winters. As a result, Cliff required two carpal tunnel surgeries, but has continued to diligently plant trees and shrubs almost every year since then. For their work to restore Luckiamute Meadows Farm, Cliff and Gay were awarded the Benton SWCD Cooperator of the Year award in 2002.

Throughout the years, Cliff has continued to improve on his property by installing large wood into Maxfield Creek to help dissipate stream energy and deposit gravels and sands. Adaptive management became a new term for the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board grant review team when we insisted that we needed funds to install more wood into the Maxfield stream channel for a second time. As a result, there has been a significant improvement to the meanders of Maxfield Creek and an increase in the gravel deposition and stream channel elevation. Maxfield Creek is on its way to recovery.

The Institute of Applied Ecology has been out to plant pollinator plants and endangered species in the open areas near the oak savannah. We helped Cliff plant trees and shrubs for a hedgerow/wildlife corridor across a large field that had been fenced off to wildlife passage. It also serves as a pollinator hedge. Cliff acquired the CREP acreage to the south of the original farmstead and now owns property adjacent to 2 miles of the Luckiamute River. The growth of native plants, reduction of invasive plants, and improved wildlife habitats has been substantial and impressive since Cliff declared in 2001 that he wanted to make a small corner of the world a better place.

Cliff Hall shows fellow board member Jerry Paul some of the sites at Luckiamute Meadows Farm.
Cliff Hall points out farm features to fellow board member Jerry Paul.

Cliff has hosted many tours for organizations to view the restoration and wildlife and opened up a part of his property for the Kings Valley Charter School’s children to explore and learn about the natural environment. Teresa Matteson’s first experience with Cliff Hall exemplifies this nexus of restoration and education ethics.

It was February 2004 and my first month on the job. I drove to beautiful Luckiamute Meadows Farm to photograph Kings Valley School students who were planting native plants. Cliff and Gay’s property is adjacent to the school and students were everywhere with shovels and bareroot trees, totally engrossed in the delight of an outdoor classroom and digging in the soil.

One student was diligently planting; amazingly focused. Another couple, much younger kids, were giddy with the joy of each other’s company. Suddenly the ground beneath our feet began to rumble. Simultaneously, perhaps instinctually for the students who’d had the experience before, we all looked west, as if feet were sensors connected to our cautionary compass. In the distance a majestic herd of elk charged through the pasture toward the Luckiamute River. Present, then out of sight.

Gay Hall holding a bare root tree.
Gay Hall has been an active participant in restoration at their farm.

On that day my camera captured Cliff in front of his tractor with students all around. Another shot is of Gay, holding a tiny tree ready for planting. What kind and gentle people! I’d like to have a tally of the hours that school children have spent learning from their land; learning priceless lessons of life’s cycles, manual labor, exploration, natural resource management, and the unspoken golden quality of generosity.

Over the years I have visited Luckiamute Meadows several times. I’ve joined Cliff’s tour when he walks with the group sharing his experiences and observations; winding beyond the house and across the bridge, down to the creek, back along the river, through the huge oaks, and across the pastures. The air smells of earth and grass and there is a buzz in the air. The river water rushes across rocks and washes its banks. I’ve marveled at how bare root twigs, planted by numerous students through the years, have grown into sizable trees; some gnawed down by beaver. I’ve pulled soil samples from the farm’s various pastures during my soil health journey. I’ve enjoyed the comfort of the Hall’s home for meetings and potlucks. Each visit has reinforced my appreciation for Cliff and Gay’s willingness to share their property’s unique richness with strangers; to invest in the history of the land, the King family, and the local culture.

Although Heath has known Cliff for over a decade, it was only this year when she first glimpsed the impact Cliff’s conservation efforts and generosity have had on the youth of Kings Valley.

I met Cliff when I started working at Benton SWCD in 2006. He and his wife Gay have always been very kind to me and my children, and unfailingly interested in Benton SWCD events. Come sun or storm, they faithfully attended the annual urban creek tours that a BSWCD intern started in 2008, and they both volunteer at the Native Plant Sale. Cliff even came out as a volunteer Salmon Watch instructor one year!

One special memory I have of Cliff took place just this spring. I worked with a team of fantastic volunteers and colleagues at the 4-H Wildlife Stewards Summit to teach students about beavers. We were stationed down along Maxfield Creek just a short walk from Kings Valley Charter School. Our station was technically on property owned by Cliff and Gay. When Cliff came down to say hello to the kids, one of the Kings Valley high school students helping at our station stepped up and introduced himself to Cliff. This student, Beaux, of his own volition, thanked Cliff for allowing KVCS students to use his property as a learning site. It was wonderful to witness this heartfelt show of gratitude.

Cliff Hall with fellow board member Faye Yoshihara at the Native Plant Sale.
Cliff Hall with fellow board member Faye Yoshihara at the Native Plant Sale.

Even our newest staff member, Laura Brown, whose been with us just short of a year, recognizes the significant contributions Cliff has made on behalf of the youth and wildlife of Kings Valley.

I haven’t had the opportunity to personally know Cliff for very long. However, since my first board meeting Cliff and the rest of the board have welcomed me and supported my program. It’s been great to see the collaboration and team work that comes from the board. It’s been inspiring to hear about all that Cliff and Gay have done for Kings Valley and the students at the Charter School.

Holly Crosson has many fond memories of Cliff: farm visits, urban creek tours, selling bare-root stock with a smile at the District’s annual native plant sale, and the light-hearted humor with which he ran our monthly board meetings.

But one of my most indelible memories of “Cliff in action” is when he presented a noon-time talk about Katy Butler’s book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” at the Corvallis Public Library. It was at this event that I truly realized what an inspiring example Cliff sets not only for how we all can be better stewards of this planet, but of each other, too.

Cliff had mentioned that he would be giving a book review on palliative care so I headed over to the library 15 minutes early, figuring Cliff knows a lot of people from his long medical career, so it could be a popular talk. I walked in the door to find a standing-room-only crowd. Every available spot on the floor was rapidly filling in with people anticipating Dr. Hall’s discussion of the best-selling book about illuminating a better pathway to death. Wow…I thought.  165 people (the library staff’s count) showing up for a talk about dying?

For an hour Cliff’s audience was rapt as they listened to him share his personal knowledge of an increasingly complicated and expensive medical system. He balanced the doom and gloom with compassionate advice for patients and their families to navigate one of the most difficult challenges we all will eventually face. Perhaps hand planting thousands of native trees and tirelessly nurturing the land and water on his and Gay’s beautiful Luckiamute Meadows Farm helped him cope with this substantial challenge that he faced as a physician for over 30 years.

Cliff approaches the challenges of conservation in the same thoughtful, intrepid, and persistent manner. I think of him as the Wendell Berry of Benton County. He is a farmer, conservationist, rural historian, and a promoter of sustainable agriculture. He connects people with nature, showing particular delight when those people are children. He believes in ecological responsibility and teaches others about the joys of loving the land under one’s feet.

I am reminded of two Wendell Berry quotes that could just as easily have come from Cliff Hall:

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes and a longer memory than we do.”

And “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

In closing, we leave you with these words of gratitude.

Thank you, Cliff and Gay! Because you stand behind your conservation ethics with all your heart and might. Because you manage a place for wild things. Because you understand the value in kids’ real-life experiences. Because you give freely.

Thank you for the impact your conservation actions have – not only for wildlife – but also for the youth of Benton County!

Thanks for the service! Thank you for your unwavering support for the Benton Soil and Water Conservation District over the last 17 years! You are both generous beyond measure, and I am deeply appreciative of all your efforts to make our little spot on this earth more resilient, healthy, and beautiful for all.