News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

From hazards to habitat

Many of us who live in Sisters have experienced that sinking feeling when we see a dark column of smoke on a hot summer day. Living in fire-prone forests, the loss of our homes to a wildfire is a real threat. If we are lucky, we still have house insurance, but many homeowners have had their policies cancelled after the loss of over 4,000 homes to Oregon wildfires in 2020, the state's most expensive natural disaster.

We also live near rivers that have been altered in the past to reduce flooding, grow crops, and improve grazing. Stream channels were deepened, consolidated, and straightened. Nature's engineer and hydrologist, the American beaver, was an integral part of maintaining river ecosystems, but was hunted to near extinction by the mid-19th century to make fur coats and hats. These actions worked to dry meadows and wetlands that once helped recharge water tables and sustain late summer stream flows.

As interest in watershed restoration and bringing salmon and steelhead back to our mountain rivers has increased, some organizations have found a novel way to address both issues. The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council has been working with the Oregon Department of Forestry, and subdivisions around Sisters, to remove small juniper trees which have increased with historic and current fire suppression.Small trees can act as ladder fuels that carry fire upwards into forest canopies.

Luckily, one person's hazard can become a habitat building block to create sturdy stream structures that mimic the effects of beaver dams and wood accumulation, this time at the Deschutes Land Trust's Willow Springs Preserve on lower Whychus Creek.

Whychus Creek extends 41 miles from its mountain headwaters to mouth on the Deschutes River, but has only 6 miles of broad meadow floodplains. Historically these meadows were biologically important areas where the creek could meander and spread, creating diverse and complex aquatic habitats. Beavers were common and their dams helped create pools and ponds where fish could rear and hide.

This also created habitat for wildlife, including amphibians and aquatic insects that feed fish, birds, and bats. Willows and other streamside vegetation provided habitat for birds and other terrestrial species and helped keep the stream cool. Bends in the creek created oxbows where wildlife sheltered. Whychus was once a major steelhead and salmon stream, providing 40 percent of the available steelhead spawning habitat in the Upper Deschutes Basin. With restored fish passage at the Pelton-Round Butte Hydro Project, hopes have risen that we may see those silver streaks swimming up the creek again someday.

As part of their strategic plan, the Land Trust has been working with partners like the Watershed Council on restoration of their four preserves with meadows along Whychus Creek, including Willow Springs, Camp Polk, Whychus Canyon, and Aspen Hollow. Both the Watershed Council and the Land Trust websites detail their many restoration and educational activities with videos, maps, and information on how to learn more through guided tours: https://www.upperdeschuteswatershedcouncil.org and https://www.deschuteslandtrust.org.

Homeowners at The Hill have been working hard for six years through the Firewise program to reduce wildfire hazards to their neighborhood and homes with both grants and volunteer labor: https://www.nfpa.org/education-and-research/wildfire/firewise-usa. For this project, 18 households worked with "Fire Czar" Rod Bonacker, a former wildland fire fighter, to identify trees to remove to improve the safety of their properties.

Watershed Council Restoration Program Manager Mathias Perle and Stream Restoration Project Manager Casey Schuder oversaw the work of cutting 255 small junipers in March.

Perle explained, "We have learned that juniper is very valuable in this style of restoration. Juniper tends to be sinewy instead of brittle as it dries and does not break down as quickly as, say, ponderosa. Juniper continues to be 'rough' over time in that it slows water and can act like a sieve to continue catching other woody material that floats in from upstream." 

Trees were stockpiled at streamside areas of the Land Trust's 129-acre Willow Springs Preserve which surrounds one mile of Whychus Creek. Anabranch Solutions is working with the Watershed Council to finalize construction details for the second phase of the restoration, to be completed during July. The first phase was completed in 2022.

The project uses a cost effective, and light-handed restoration approach to improve habitat diversity without intensive earth moving. Two types of hand-built structures are planned. Most are called Post Assisted Log Structures, which mimic log jams and use junipers from The Hill and Tollgate subdivisions. They brace trees against vertical wood posts driven into the streambed with fence post pounders and deflect water flows to help create braided channels and gravel bars.

Beaver Dam Analogs are smaller beaver-dam-like structures which span small wet or dry side channels to create pools. Both structures help reconnect the creek to its historic floodplain. They are not intended to be permanent, but are expected to move as high-water events occur and the creek begins to restore its natural processes. Beavers have been active above and below the Willow Springs Preserve and hopefully will move into the area again to resume their role in watershed restoration.

Homeowners like Rick Wageman appreciated the free opportunity to improve his property's fire safety and had 11 small juniper removed.

"We worry about summer wildfires," he said. "This was such an easy way to make our home more fire safe and help out the watershed."

Perle considers the work an interesting win-win situation.

"This project highlights the potential for combining habitat restoration benefiting fish and wildlife with wildfire resilience that safeguards our communities," he said. "Grant funding from the Oregon Department of Forestry matched with Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Pelton Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service funds make it possible to give trees thinned from the wildland urban interface a second life as habitat trees instream and on the Whychus Creek floodplain."

More restoration work is planned in years to come in collaboration with willing landowners. Guided tours of the project are scheduled; visit the Land Trust's website to sign up.

 
 

Reader Comments(1)

RogerE writes:

Thank you Rod, & all who set this up. We had probably 15 or 20 trees removed from our yard. Left the stubs for us to collect for firewood. Already piled up awaiting fall splitting.

 
 
 
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