Going swimmingly: Mt. Hood fish stream restoration update

A forest stream flows through a rocky streambed, past fallen logs,.

Between 2012 and 2017, the Mt. Hood National Forest and its partners performed extensive restoration work within the Still Creek watershed that flows nearby the Zigzag Ranger District. Restoring the health of Still Creek watershed is vital to recover healthy populations of threatened and endangered fish such as Coho salmon and steelhead among other wildlife species that are listed as “species of concern” tied to the Endangered Species Act.

“Still Creek has been identified as being one of the best areas for us to focus our efforts around Mt. Hood National Forest due to its historical populations of these important fish species,” Greg Wanner, Fish Biologist for the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. “The watershed health with potential to provide a lot of stream diversity also made it a prime candidate for our work.”

Total investments in the watershed amounted to nearly $2.2 million dollars and have resulted in significant improvements in habitat quality, water quality, and ecosystem function.

The project was driven by a few key goals: 1) restoring natural watershed processes and removal of invasive plants, 2) improving water quality in terms of temperature, and sediment reduction, 3) providing educational opportunities for nearby communities, 4) providing jobs to contractors and the local fishing industry, and 5) strengthening relationships between partnering organizations and private landowners.

A man wearing waders spreads his arms apart while standing on a pile of large diameter wood logs above a stream bed.

Greg Wanner demonstrates how a stream will spread out into the flood plain during the winter’s high water events with the addition of large wood – downed tree trunks and branches – in this still image from a 2013 video about the Still Creek fish stream restoration project. USDA Forest Service image..

Over the last several decades our understanding of what it means to have a healthy watershed has changed drastically. As recently as the early 90’s scientists and engineers believed that the best way of producing healthy fish populations was to channelize streams by removing boulders and large wood structures like logjams and generally straightening rivers wherever possible. The urgency for this work was also spurred by flooding events where cabins along streams near Mt. Hood specifically were damaged by high water levels.

The thinking back then was that if the water flowed faster, more water cold pass through the same space thus decreasing the possibility of water levels rising and at the same time, helping anadromous fish — fish that migrate to the ocean and then return to spawn — reach the ocean. Sadly, best intentions don’t always pan out the way we wish they did.

The streams in Mt. Hood’s watersheds saw a near total collapse of fish bearing stream habitats following the channelization. What fish biologists and other scientists soon realized was that the slower moving waters off the main channels of streams were vital places for fish to rest and feed. They further discovered that large woody structures helped create these slower water by spreading out the floodplains and provided important food sources for juvenile fish.

“The large woody debris structures are so important since they provide for juvenile fish places to rest and great food sources in insects in the slower moving waters,” Wanner said.

So, Mt. Hood biologists have been bringing back the logs and boulders and adding diversity back in the streams’ construction. Over the last five years, biologists have successfully restored 8 miles of stream along Still Creek and 185 acres of essential floodplain habitat.

In addition, the forest has successfully:

  • Built 240 logjams throughout the main channel of Still Creek.
  • Reconnected 6.5 miles of side channels to the main channel.
  • Rehabilitated 19 dispersed camp sites to help reduce contamination and sedimentation.
  • And removed barriers, like failing culverts, on over 3 miles of habitat for migratory fish.

But this story of success includes more players than just Forest Service biologists. Since 1999, the Sandy River Basin Partnership (SRBP), originally consisting of the City of Portland, Portland General Electric (PGE), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), has played a huge role in making this restoration work a reality. Since its conception, SRBP now has 14 active partners.

With such a daunting task as restoring potentially tens of thousands of acres of watershed, SRBP decided to focus first on sections of stream that have historically supported salmon and steelhead populations from a variety of life stages and that have fairly well-connected river networks. Still Creek was identified as being a great location to restore stream habitat for Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, and winter steelhead.

“This work would not be possible without the vital partnership of so many nonprofit, state, and federal organizations,” Wanner said. “More than just providing funding, these partners have been pivotal in providing insights and legwork that has led to a much better project than we could have ever hoped for if we had worked alone just within our agency.”

The restoration efforts in adding large woody debris, boulder placement and stream diversification will continue to bring rich dividends for decades to come but restored spawning grounds for these threatened fish have already started to see increased use from these fish species.

Salmon and steelhead are important to the entire river ecosystem. They recycle nutrients back into the streams after they spawn, which shows the intricate interdependence of ecosystems. As this stream restoration effort continues, expanding to other areas beyond Still Creek, the Mt. Hood National Forest looks forward to continuing their partnership with the Sandy River Basin Partners in the hopes of assisting these vital fish species to continue to thrive.

Greg Wanner explains more about restoring salmon and steelhead habitat on Mt. Hood National Forest in the 2013 video, “Jumpstarting Fish Habitat: The Story of Still Creek,” at https://youtu.be/JmN86_Nrkp8.

SOURCE INFORMATION: Chris Bentley is the Website and Social Media manager for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s Office of Communication and Community Engagement.

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