The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

By Sean C. Morgan
Of The New Era 

Trees for fish


August 27, 2013

A DOUGLAS FIR falls across Soda Fork Road and across Soda Fork, to the right.

The sound of running water in Soda Fork Creek, 25 miles east of Sweet Home, is punctuated by the revving of a diesel engine, cutting through the quiet of a summer afternoon in the Willamette National Forest.

Suddenly, a tall Douglas fir tree descends from the west bank of the creek and crashes into the water. Up and down the stream, other freshly cut trees lie in similar fashion in the stream bed.

The fallen trees are a part of an effort by the South Santiam Watershed Council to create a number of blockages in Soda Fork to encourage the buildup of spawning gravel for spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead spawning, above and below the fallen tree structures. Both fish are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Much of the river runs over bare bedrock and larger stones, which makes poor spawning beds. Instead, fish need gravel.

To that end, a contractor hired by the council spent about a week pulling down trees into the Soda Fork of the South Santiam River, located roughly 25 miles east of Sweet Home.

Downstream, at the confluence of the Soda Fork and the South Santiam River, some of the highest concentrations of Chinook spawning takes place, said Eric Hartstein, SSWC director. That’s what the council wants to happen in the Soda Fork.

“I think it would be safe to say historically, there were hundreds of of steelhead spawning in there,” said Sweet Home Ranger District Hydrologist Lance Gatchell. More recently, scientists have found a couple of steelhead and Chinook exploring the river.

“This project is one that came out of the Cool Soda planning process,” Harstein said.

The Cool Soda planning area is a partnership among the U.S. Forest Service, the Watershed Council and Cascade Timber Consulting, which manages private land owned by Hill Timber, about 60 percent of the total land, in the Cool Camp-Soda Fork drainage.

The $52,000 project is funded by an Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board grant and donations of trees and staff time by the U.S. Forest Service Sweet Home Ranger District.

“There’s a lot of things that we can do,” Hartstein said. The Corps of Engineers is building a new facility at Foster Dam, for example, to improve upstream passage for the threatened fish species. “Some of the most vital in this area is providing good spawning and rearing habitat.”

To do that, the Watershed Council dropped some 34 trees, ranging from 28 inches to 44 inches in diameter, across the Soda Fork along a stretch a half mile to three-quarters of a mile long from Aug 15 to Aug. 21. Aquatic Contracting of Portland completed the work on behalf of the Watershed Council.

“Before we did this, there wasn’t a whole lot of structure to trap (spawning gravel),” Hartstein said.

“I would say it’s probably going to take something we call a 10-year event to really get some gravel moving out there,” Gatchell said. “We need some kind of big flood event.”

Although not as big as 1996, he said.

The fish tend to use the first good spawning areas they find as they migrate upstream, Gatchell said. As their numbers come back, they’ll move more and more up the Soda Fork.

“I thought it went great for sure,” Gatchell said. “It’s a successful project. I think it will work.”

In addition, the Sweet Home Ranger District will begin replacing culverts along the Soda Fork, Gatchell said. Gravel has built up behind the culverts. When they’re replaced, the gravel will be able to pass through and become trapped behind the tree structures in the Soda Fork.

The project also will protect the road, Hartstein said.

To pull down the trees, climber Tyler Zuniga of Costa Rica and Aquatic Contracting, climbed part way up each target tree and secured a cable to it. Trees selected to be fallen were large enough to cross the stream and the road.

The cable crossed the stream to a skidder on the roadway, which was braced against a maple or other object. The skidder pulled on the tree, rocking it back and forth before uprooting it.

Sometimes, the trees were easy to pull down, and sometimes, they couldn’t be budged.

“It’s not the size so much as what they’re growing in,” Gatchell said. “If it’s in this rock, it tends to have roots growing into the bedrock, and it won’t come down.”

Generally, trees naturally fall across streams like the Soda Fork, but this creek has few natural encumbrances.

Years ago, ironically, such fallen trees were removed to assist in fish passage, Hartstein said.

“It’s something we’re always learning,” he said.

Some of the trees removed from the stream in those days was marketable timber too.

OFFICIALS discuss a pile of freshly fallen trees in the creek. From left, they are Lance Gatchell, Forest Service hydrologist; Brett Blundon, Bureau of Land Management fish biologist, Eugene District; Eric Hartstein, director of the South Santiam Watershed Council; and Johan Hogervorst, Willamette National Forest hydrologist.

Later efforts, during the 1990s, restoration projects chained smaller fallen trees into the stream, but the results were mixed, with small gravel built up around those logs.

This project dropped three or four trees together in groups to build a sturdier and larger structure Hartstein hopes will create substantial spawning habitat.

The project is similar to work in Canyon Creek last year in that it is aimed at improving salmon and steelhead populations.

But the Canyon Creek project was aimed at creating small pools for rearing young fish. The Soda Fork project is aimed at providing spawning habitat and retaining gravel.


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