Between owls calling, cougars roaming, and the splashing of spawning salmon, the Sandy River basin is alive. It hasn’t always been well.
A decade has passed since diligent, attentive work began to repair the impact of human actions. A group of partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council, the Bureau of Land Management, and The Freshwater Trust (TFT) agreed and witnessed how the removal of large woody debris, road construction and clearcutting had led to negative consequences for water quality and habitat. But what was also agreed upon among this group was that strategic action and collaborative funding could fix them.
In 2010, TFT broke ground on the first restoration project here with a goal of making this a home again for native fish species that had become endangered in the area they were once plentiful. Today, nearly three dozen others have been implemented, along with other critical actions to improve stream function and future resilience.
“The Freshwater Trust’s work here has always centered upon understanding what this place might have been like without the influence of significant development and how best to support the native populations of steelhead, coho and Chinook,” said Mark McCollister, habitat restoration director. “We’ve always asked ourselves how this place would have functioned without these kinds of human impacts. Then, we take action to get it back to a state that supports abundant native fish populations.”
2019 efforts built on years of previous work. At the end of the 10 years of helicopters buzzing, excavators running, planning, and permitting, stream function in the Sandy had been increased by more than 3,000 functional linear feet. Last year, on the mainstem of the Salmon River, flow was restored to three side channels by reconnecting them to the mainstem, and an off-channel pond complex was constructed totaling an acre. Large wood structures were installed at the entrances to each of these features that will help facilitate the development of pool habitat and refuge for salmonids. TFT also restored large wood and floodplain connectivity at the confluence of the South Fork Salmon, and within Sixes wetland complex. More than 650 logs were flown in by helicopter and strategically placed to form 33 new logjams. The wood for the structures is collected locally from hazard trees or other projects, such as trailhead improvement. They sometimes come from nearby forest fires, including the historic Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge. The massive projects require partnership and coordination and often provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to local companies, including Columbia Helicopters, a local operator founded in Oregon in 1957.
“Our services are worldwide, but we really value the work we do here with The Freshwater Trust,” said Dave Horrax,
operations manager with Columbia. “It’s a natural extension of who we are.”
And when it comes to making this a home again for fish, they’ve let us know we’re doing a good job. Rotary screw-traps, which allow for basin scale smolt production abundance estimates and a measure of freshwater productivity, have been operating on Still Creek since 1994 and the Salmon River since 2010. Datasets from these traps show increases since the beginning of restoration work beginning in 2010.
For example, the number of steelhead smolts, young salmon, in the Salmon River have increased by 710% between 2010 and 2018.
“This basin has been a key focus of my career,” said McCollister, who has worked with TFT for 20 years. “When I reflect on the work we’ve done, I will undoubtedly get to say that I spent my time making a difference and that difference can actually be seen in the waters of my home basin. That’s a great feeling.”