Mother's Helpers

A partnership of public and private entities is helping enhance the health of local streams by correcting well-intended past efforts to disrupt nature’s good work.

Story and photos by Geoff Shipley Photos by Thomas Boyd

When Jeff McEnroe, fish biologist with the Roseburg District Office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), works with a crew of three from Blue Ridge Timber Cutting, Inc. out of Coos Bay to strategically engineer a logjam in eastern Douglas County’s Pass Creek from existing streamside trees, it’s a project that’s nearly 50 in years in the making.

Streams throughout the Umpqua Valley and the state of Oregon make clear a quirk of humanity: We often don’t know what we don’t know, and we’re good at soothing our ignorance with the balm of good intentions.

Up until just a few decades ago, accepted practice encouraged the removal of large in-stream woody debris – natural logjams — from the state’s waterways. For a couple of generations, logjams were often viewed as barriers to fish and contributors to flooding, among other ills.

The natural structures were removed from local streambeds in a remarkably thorough manner, even for a state where learning to run a chainsaw is almost as commonplace as learning to drive. A 1930s-era DuPont advertisement recommends removing logjams and creating “stream-lined” waterways with the help of dynamite.

But these good intentions were misplaced. Logjams as adversaries? More like allies, since they provide exactly the cover, deep pools and pebbles that juvenile fish and aquatic creatures need to thrive, while the natural obstacles also protect and enhance important floodplain function and riparian wildlife habitat.

Up until just a few decades ago, accepted practice encouraged the removal of large in-stream woody debris – natural logjams - from the state’s waterways.

Picture your favorite Oregon stream enduring its seasonal extremes. Flows that may be no more than a trickle in summertime give way to

torrential floods in winter. Without natural logjams interrupting the water’s tremendous force and dissipating it into the surrounding floodplain, winter flows act as giant power washers that scour stream bottoms of fine gravel, cut down into bedrock and sever waterways from their natural floodplains.

The resulting environmental damage disrupts spawning fish, their offspring and all the other living things that rely on healthy riparian habitat, including humans.

Jesse Matson keeps a watchful eye on trees, cables and crew.

Jesse Matson keeps a watchful eye on trees, cables and crew.

Closed to angling for decades now, Pass Creek, which feeds into the North Umpqua River by way of first Canton Creek and then Steamboat Creek, is still, thankfully, a spawning and rearing haven for the watershed’s wild steelhead and trout despite some rough treatment in the past.

The little creek first earned widespread recognition in 1968 for lending its name to a groundbreaking film that highlighted the destructive logging practices of the day. Championed by conservationists such as local legend Frank Moore, the 10-minutePass Creek movie had a profound impact on re-thinking established forest practices in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the country.

While the attention eventually led to some restoration work for the stream in the 1980s, it’s only fitting that, 50 years after the release of Pass Creek, nearly 100 individual sites have been identified in the Canton and Pass Creek watersheds for an ambitious, four-phase habitat and water-quality restoration plan that’s slated to run through 2022.

“The restoration work that we do takes a monumental collaborative effort to complete large, multi-year projects,” explains Eric Riley, executive director of Partnership for the UmpquaRivers,thebasin’swatershedcouncil. “These projects are often extremely complex and involve a large group of professionals to design, permit, fund, contract and implement.”

Though initial project development and design falls to McEnroe and the BLM, the Canton and Pass Creek restoration work ultimately relies on help from the Partnership for the Umpqua Rivers, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fishery Service and Blue Ridge Timber Cutting Inc. Funding comes from the BLM as well as from the North Umpqua Mitigation Fund that was created when PacifiCorp relicensed Soda Springs Dam on the North Umpqua River in 2003.

“The actions of these organizations make a difference, and without the collaborative and innovative mindset that these folks have, habitat restoration in the Umpqua Basin would be less productive and not nearly as effective at improving overall watershed conditions,” says Riley.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

Planning and careful coordination extend to the ecological aspects of the project just as much as they do to the administrative portions. The streamside trees that will be used to create the logjams must be hand-selected by a wildlife biologist to ensure protection of crucial habitat for birds and mammals. And the work must be done in late summer when the stream flows are at their lowest and before fish spawning starts in earnest.

With a relatively tight work-window each year, and at the rate of about one site per day, it will take the planned five years to tackle all of the identified restoration sites.

On a cool, partly sunny, early October day in the Calapooya Mountains of eastern Douglas County, McEnroe and the Blue Ridge Timber Cutting team work on one of the identified sites in Pass Creek. A chief reason this specific location was selected, explains McEnroe, is because of the large Douglas fir tree that has already fallen naturally and spanned the creek.

Restoring natural environments means every situation is different, as is every tree, and they don’t always fall exactly where the crew wants them.

“It’s too high above the creek, though,” says McEnroe, pointing out the six-foot gap between the bottom of the now-horizontal trunk and the stream’s surface below that will make it difficult to capture logs and limbs floating down in winter. Pulling in a few stream-side trees and closing that gap is the goal of today’s work.

When most trees fall into streams naturally they typically have their entire root wad still attached like the Douglas fir that’s present here. The root wad helps serve as an anchor that prevents the tree from being pushed around too much during winter floods.

The team from Blue Ridge —pioneers of in-stream restoration—work to mimic this same natural process. So instead of using chainsaws to cut and topple them into the waterway, they use a series of block and tackle setups and powerful, heavy-duty cables and winches to quite literally pull the trees over—root wad and all.

It’s difficult, sometimes painstaking labor that requires the crew to have a working understanding of geometry and the power of mechanical advantage as they climb, hop and crawl through vibrant stands of fir, cedar, hemlock and alder in order to thread the cables (a thicker mainline and a smaller “haywire”) to just the right spots.

Mounted winch and operator.

Mounted winch and operator.

The footing that’s usually more often wet than dry addsanadditionalchallenge.Theteamalsorelies on good radio communication since the winch operator works from the back of a large truck on the road, obscured from the crew working in the stream bottom.

Restoring natural environments means every situation is different as is, of course, every tree, and they don’t always fall exactly where the crew wants them. But in just a few hours, team members pull over one large fir tree and, with some additional resetting and maneuvering, wedge it deliberately under the original fallen log.

They’re also able to move another large trunk that crashes down on some in-stream boulders and fills the air with that unmistakable fragrance of fresh cedar. Before the day is done, they’ll pull down two living cedars on the opposite side of the stream, at least one large already-fallen log and a few smaller trees upstream.

Today’s work is a nudge to Mother Nature. She’ll have her own work to do adding to the logjam, but this is a decisively important jumpstart to a natural process we’re just now fully appreciating.

“The idea is to get the forest contributing in-stream wood on its own again like an old-growth forest,” says McEnroe.

New in-stream debris ready for winter flow.

New in-stream debris ready for winter flow.

Science points to an interrelated lifecycle of forests and streams in the Pacific Northwest. When large conifers (Douglas firs, hemlocks, cedars) fall in- stream during high-wind events, or as stream banks naturally erode during periods of high water, they act as fixtures for logjams to form. Those logjams help the surrounding banks resist further erosion, while the floodplains behind the logjams become stable enough to grow additional large conifer trees so the cycle, over time, can repeat.

When the restored logjams work correctly, McEnroe explains, the evidence is easy to see in the form of buffered winter flows, a clear sign of gravel recruitment behind the logjam and a healthy connection between stream and floodplain. A series of time-lapse photographs offers inexpensive and low-tech proof of nature flourishing and thriving again with a small assist from humans.

“If we can provide them the building blocks for recovery, then the streams quickly start to recover by depositing gravel and developing complex pools,” says McEnroe. “The fish, in turn, respond and quickly inhabit these new high-quality areas. Nature is very resilient if we just give it a chance to recover.”

Good intentions aside, given our past beliefs and actions toward our waterways, it’s not a stretch to say, McEnroe offers, that few adults in Oregon have seen truly healthy local streams. Restoration projects like the one in Pass Creek offer an opportunity to thoughtfully reverse that reality.