Why We Work Here
At one time, the Sandy was chock full of large wood. Trees from the surrounding lush, old growth forests would fall in and naturally congregate. They would slow the water around them, aiding in the formation of side channels, opening the floodplain, and providing habitat for Chinook, coho, steelhead and trout. Yet clearcut logging near the river’s edge and the removal of large wood following the flood of 1964 dramatically changed the habitat here. We’re bringing this watershed back to what it used to be.
Majestic. Wild. Lush. Dense. Diverse. Powerful. “Fish full.”
This is how we’d describe northwestern Oregon’s Sandy River Basin.
We know its waters. We’ve spent summer mornings and afternoons knee deep in their cool depths. We’ve studied and monitored them – collected and analyzed data. We’ve protected the native fish that call them home.
The Freshwater Trust has been building log jams, placing boulders, replanting native species and reconnecting channels in the basin for nearly a decade.
Follow the meanders of tributaries in the basin, and you can see our impact – out of the water in the form of towering, stacked logs, and in it, where coho, Chinook, steelhead and trout swim.
“These fish are proof,” said Mark McCollister, habitat restoration director, pointing to Chinook rearing underneath a wood jam that was constructed a few years back. “Proof of a plan being carried out and proof of a difference made.”
McCollister’s excitement comes from the fact that it hasn’t always been like this.
Timber harvests, the removal of large wood to reduce flood risks, increased recreation and development, forest fires, and road construction took a toll on the basin for years.
In 1964, the Army Corps of Engineers straightened sections of the Salmon River and removed large wood from the floodplain. A national movement to remove woody debris and meanders was thought to prevent flooding. In actuality, water was carried through the river system faster, exacerbating the problem.
These historic actions also decreased habitat diversity and as a consequence, native fish populations – so much so that Sandy River salmon and steelhead were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.
“You could say it was a catalyst,” said McCollister. “A moment to recognize how significant the population decline was and an opportunity to reverse what we were doing.”
A dozen groups with one goal
A partnership of public and private organizations not only recognized the need for restoration but responded with a grand goal: Identify and implement every known restoration action in the basin.
“We couldn’t let this stronghold disappear,” said McCollister. “We’re talking about one of the most important habitats in the Pacific Northwest.”
Over a dozen groups with commitment and expertise, including The Bureau of Land Management, The Sandy River Basin Watershed Council, The Forest Service, Portland General Electric, The Freshwater Trust, the Portland Water Bureau and the Nature Conservancy, became the Sandy River Basin Partners.
“We’ve always been driven to reclaim the legacy of the basin,” said McCollister.
Together, The Freshwater Trust and the other Partners developed and executed upon one of the first comprehensive and science-driven plans for achieving that.
“If we were going to really recover fish habitat in this basin as a whole on a timeline that mattered, it had to be done strategically,” said David Primozich, conservation director for The Freshwater Trust. “Our actions had to be thought out and thorough.”
By using fish surveys and modeling, partners evaluated the spawning and rearing patterns of the endangered fish and identified what they refer to as “strategic actions guided by science.” Sites and projects were prioritized based upon what would have the greatest ecological impact. These actions embody the Quantified Conservation method used by The Freshwater Trust. This method is about using data and technology to ensure that every restoration action translates to a positive outcome.
Three focus areas
The Partners have primarily focused on three subbasins of the Sandy: Salmon River, Still Creek and the lower mainstem Sandy River corridor. All three watersheds are anchor habitats for salmon and steelhead.
The Salmon River begins on the south slope of Mt. Hood and flows for 33 miles before entering the Sandy River. Still Creek is a tributary to the Zigzag River located within the Mt. Hood National Forest near the town of Rhododendron. The lower mainstem Sandy is one of the most significant migration corridors for fall Chinook salmon.
The Partners use a hierarchical approach to prioritize the type of conservation and restoration projects within these three areas.
“Restoration usually happens where it’s possible – where there’s an opportunity – not necessarily where it’s most needed or where native fish will benefit the most,” said Primozich. “We came up with a list of places, goals and actions in the basin – an overall plan – and started to chip away at them together as a partnership.”
To date, 26 side channels have been restored on the Salmon River. 196 large wood structures have been installed on both the Salmon River and Still Creek. More than 3,000 pieces of large wood have been placed in the two waterways.
“All of this has been done with the ultimate goal of bringing fish back here to a watershed where they once flourished,” said McCollister. “Restoration is sort of a working assumption that if you rebuild it, they will come back.”
Seeing is believing
For this basin, that assumption has been proven true – in spades.
Bruce Zoellick, a fish biologist for the Bureau of Land Management, has been closely monitoring the Salmon River by snorkel for the past several years.
Zoellick spotted 64 redds, gravel nests where fish lay their eggs in 2012. In 2014, there were 115, and in 2016, 137 – a number that he calls a world record.
The redds are expected to become thousands of adult fish in the coming years. And miles of river and stream will have been restored to welcome them.
Additional results from these projects and others can be seen in The Freshwater Trust’s interactive Uplift Tool.
“The beautiful piece about all of this is really the partnerships that were formed to get these types of results,” said McCollister. “It’s a unique thing, and something that should be replicated elsewhere.”
The Forest Service agreed when it awarded the Sandy River Basin Partners the National Rise to the Future Award. This award is given by the USDA Forest Service each year for outstanding restoration accomplishments.
“The Partners have worked collaboratively to implement numerous successful and technically complex restoration projects,” said Lisa Northrop, Forest Supervisor in the Mt. Hood National Forest.
The Freshwater Trust, the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council, Oregon Department Fish and Wildlife, Portland Water Bureau, and USDA accepted the award on behalf of the group in May 2016.
The Oregon State Lands Board, USDA and American Fisheries Society have also recognized the group’s work.
Collective work with collective backing
Collaboration has been a force driving impressive results on the ground.
But it’s also been behind the scenes.
A widespread array of foundations and businesses have financially backed the restoration of river mile after river mile and ensured monitoring will continue on project sites.
“We have identified what is broken about our rivers, what fish species and their life stages are affected by the degraded rivers, what needs to be done to fix them, and also importantly, approximately how much it will cost,” said Greg Wanner, supervisory fish biologist with the US Forest Service.
Since 2007, the Partners have guided more than $10 million in restoration investment to the basin. Funders have included the City of Portland, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Ecotrust, NOAA Restoration Center, Boeing Company, US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Wells Fargo, Patagonia, The Standard, Campbell Global, The Boeing Company, Carol and Velma Saling Foundation, and Pacific Power Blue Sky Habitat Fund.
“Funders are attracted to our planning and track record implementing successful projects,” said McCollister.
This past summer, Wells Fargo provided $64,000 as part of their Environmental Solutions for Communities grant program.
The City of Portland’s Water Bureau recently granted The Freshwater Trust $100,000, an investment in the basin that provides drinking water for the Rose City and more than 900,000 Oregonians.
“We’ve been very successful at cobbling together numerous funding sources to put together world-class restoration projects,” said Wanner. “I’ve had people tell me: This is the template for how all restoration work should be done.”
Progress to Date
There is more to be done – probably decades of it.
We focused our 2017 efforts on seven project sites across the three priority subbasins identified in our plan: the mainstem of the Sandy River, Salmon River and Still Creek. On Still, approximately 500 pieces of large wood were added to 53 large wood structures, opening 11 side channels. On the Salmon River, 146 pieces of wood were added to seven structures.
All of this resulted in 419 functional linear feet of stream added to the more than 10,000 already restored.
“Going back and revisiting efforts from previous years allows us to be thorough and know we’re achieving long-term outcomes,” said Jeff Fisher, habitat monitoring coordinator with TFT. “It’s part of our trademark approach.”
A significant chapter of the partners’ plan, initially started in 2006, was closed in 2018, when all of the restoration work identified for Still Creek was officially completed.
“This means Still Creek is now on a trajectory to be a fully function-ing habitat for native fish,” said McCollister. “As is the case with all of our projects, we’ll track and monitor that recovery year after year.”