Logging for fish

Benny Westcott

Many river goers see fallen trees as a nuisance. But for juvenile winter steelhead, toppled timber can be a welcome addition to the aquatic ecosystem.

USDA Forest Service District fish biologist and hydrologist Lance Gatchell knows this. That’s why this month he helped spearhead a project to down 10 Douglas fir trees into a half-mile stretch of the Upper Calapooia River.

He’s lent his expertise to three similar undertakings over the last decade and a half, in Moose, Canyon and Soda Fork creeks. The purpose of this project, like the others, is to restore the stream ecosystem.

“We, as humans, came in here in the 1970s and cut out all the logs that were through here. It made it so all the gravels that the fish used to spawn washed out,” Gatchell said, noting that fallen leaves also washed away. “It becomes a barren area, void of life, and the ecosystem sort of collapses.”

“This system evolved with the wood in the stream,” he said of the Upper Calapooia. “Once it’s back in, the gravel starts to accumulate again, and all of the leaves that fall into the river don’t just wash out; they rack up behind.”

Without this kind of habitat, Gatchell added, juvenile steelhead have a harder time surviving.

“The baby steelhead that will be born here now and in the future will have a much higher success rate, because they’ll have all this habitat,” he said.

With the trees in the water, pine material gets trapped and becomes food for insects or fish, followed by bears and other organisms that eat fish. Through this chain reaction, the fallen timber supports the entire ecosystem.

“It helps restore the whole watershed, fish and wildlife, just by restoring the hydrology,” Gatchell said.

Planning for the Upper Calapooia Project started in 2016, when Calapooia Watershed Council members met with U.S. Forest Service employees to look at potential steelhead habitat enhancement on the Upper Calapooia River.

In those discussions, Gatchell identified a lack of large wood, so the parties began devising plans. Once complete, the project design was brought to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, which in 2018 supplied the necessary $150,000 to fund it.

Then came delays, prompted by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020. The latter disaster, which burned more than 170,000 acres in Lane County’s McKenzie River valley, went down as one of the largest wildfires in state history. As a result, physical work on the project didn’t begin until July 15 of this year, running through July 21.

“It took some time to reassess things after the fire,” Calapooia Watershed Council Habitat Restoration Program Manager Cris Salazar said.

“Being on Forest Service property, we had to essentially reevaluate whether the project was still worth doing and whether the trees were still able to be kept. There was another assessment that was done post-fire, and it was deemed still a valuable project, and we moved ahead.”

In addition to placing timber in the water, the project also included removing remnants of an old bridge, which blew out in 1996. Salazar said removing its remains “opened the floodplain back up.”

The trees were pulled down by two chokers, one set 60 to 70 feet up on the trees. Ten trees were enough, Gatchell said.

“We don’t really want to take all of the trees. We want to leave some of the bigger trees there. You don’t need too many of them,” he noted, adding that other foliage falls into the river. “There’s a lot of smaller material that normally comes down because it’s an intact watershed above here. ”

“Some people were concerned that we were using old-growth for stream restoration,” he continued, pointing out that only 10 of the section’s 4,000 trees were removed. “It’s a very small amount of all that’s here.”

Some strategy is involved in determining which trees to topple. According to Gatchell, they have to be big and sound enough to not wash downstream. Location is also important. Gatchell said that to avoid downing trees in steeper areas of the stream, or transport reaches, where no material deposits. Instead, the crew aims for flat areas, or depositional reaches, where it does.

Since the project’s taking place after the Holiday Farm Fire, even more materials should reach the river.

“We’ll have a lot more dead wood in here,” Gatchell said. “We just need the backbone part of it. That’s what we’re working on. We don’t need to bring in all of the finer materials.”

Mark Villers, CEO of Coos Bay’s Blue Ridge Timber Cutting, one of the project’s contractors, said that his team sometimes had to move a quarter of a million pounds of trees.

He noted the difference between the pulling process and logging.

“In logging you don’t mess with root wads, you cut them off,” he said. “Whereas we want the root wads, because they help hold the log there. So it really adds a lot of weight to it.”

Gatchell said the river restoration project as a whole “went really well.”

He expressed confidence based on past experience.

“We already know it’s effective,” he said, “because we know what this kind of project does.”