North Coast Journal



On restoring salmon habitat

by Patrick Higgins

YOUR AUGUST COVER STORY, "FOR LOVE AND MONEY: Restoring Salmon Habitat" was an excellent account of the salmon trollers' commitment to watershed restoration. Jim Hight clearly explained the evolution of salmon restoration from the use of in-stream structures to a watershed stabilization approach.

But the story reinforced the myth that watershed damage from logging is a thing of the past and implied that timber companies are stabilizing watersheds from "stream channels to ridge lines." In fact, watershed disturbance related to timber harvest is far outpacing habitat restoration all over the North Coast landscape.

The Freshwater Creek basin profiled in the Journal story illustrates this point. Salmon and steelhead recolonized there because most of the watershed had not been logged for 60 to 80 years. Slopes had revegetated and stream channels had naturally cut down through old deposits of sediment and debris. Restoration activities in Freshwater Creek improved access for salmon and slightly improved habitat complexity, but the project has been successful mainly because much of the watershed ecosystem is in the late stages of recovery from past logging.

Watersheds can handle moderate disturbance from logging and still maintain fisheries. However, since about 1980 large industrial timber companies have accelerated harvest in important fish producing basins, creating cumulative impacts that destroy the spawning and rearing habitat for anadromous fish.

When more than 30 to 40 percent of a watershed is clearcut in a decade, the stage is set for soil loss that greatly exceeds the natural equilibrium. When a North Coast winter storm erodes these battered watersheds, timber companies like to call it "natural" or an "act of God." But, in fact, the damage is a result of poor land management practices.

Moderately intense rainfall in 1995 did inordinate damage in some highly disturbed local watersheds. In fact, Little Freshwater Creek -- one of five tributaries in the Freshwater basin -- experienced high sedimentation because almost half of that sub-basin had been logged in a very short time. If the rest of Pacific Lumber Co.'s holdings in that watershed are harvested at this level, much of the work and money invested in restoration will be rendered useless.

Yager Creek in the lower Van Duzen River watershed -- formerly a major salmon producing stream -- also sustained major flood damage after PALCO logged over 80 percent of its holdings in the basin in about 10 years. Flood damage has filled pools (which coho salmon need for protection and cool water as they summer over in fresh water) and left spawning gravels so embedded that they are like cement. Removal of canopy on tributaries and continued channel widening from sedimentation have made the main stem of Yager Creek too hot for salmon and steelhead juveniles in summer.

It is true that timber companies have shown an increasing willingness to allow erosion assessments on their lands; and some erosion control pilot projects have been carried out. But restoring watershed health will require millions of dollars, not tens of thousands. The timber companies that have created the damage have made hundreds of millions of dollars extracting timber from North Coast watersheds. It should be their responsibility to bear the cost of stabilizing them.

From an economic perspective, erosion control measures will retain soil that is necessary for production of trees. It will allow road networks to remain stable and open. Whether PALCO and other companies are willing to make this kind of long-term investment across their lands remains unclear.

A final point made in "For Love and Money" is that salmon stray and colonize new habitat, giving hope that populations can revive even in streams where no salmon exist now. But this colonization can only take place if healthy populations of salmon exist in some streams to serve as colonists.

Freshwater Creek and Elk River are two of the last half-dozen streams in California that harbor hundreds of wild coho salmon. Timber harvest in both basins is proceeding rapidly, and potential logging in Headwaters Forest could have a profound impact on Elk River. Are timber companies willing to restrain timber harvest to maintain watershed health and aid in salmon recovery? If not, coho salmon recovery will not succeed.

Pat Higgins is a consulting fisheries biologist who has authored fisheries elements in several restoration plans for several North Coast river basins.

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