A new collaborative restoration project is bringing together landowners, conservationists and the timber industry in a rare win-win for environmentalists, anglers, the logging industry and rural communities.
The Cascade Forest Conservancy (CFC) recently launched a new initiative called the Instream Wood Bank Network, with the goal of improving fish populations through rebuilding aquatic habitat.
The network plans to source non-saleable wood, then hire local contractors to move the wood to a series of “wood banks” that are set up across the region. The network then provides these logs to restoration groups throughout Southwest Washington to install wood structures and increase restoration efforts in critical habitat areas not being addressed through existing efforts. With time, the CFC hopes to expand the network into other areas of the Cascades.
Before the removal of old-growth trees along rivers and streams, waterways contained more downed trees, which diversified aquatic habitat and created deep, cool pools needed by many aquatic species to survive, including salmon, steelhead and various trout species. Climate change is warming rivers in the Pacific Northwest, creating dangerous and potentially-fatal conditions for migrating salmon and steelhead, making coldwater refuge increasingly important to the survival of spring and summer runs of wild fish.
The network was designed by Shiloh Halsey, CFC’s director of programs, to address two of the challenges common to restoration groups; a lack of wood in streams and rivers and the difficulty sourcing the wood needed for restoration.
“There is a pressing need to restore fish habitat on a large scale,” Halsey said. “There are fallen trees and logs on timberlands that can’t be sold—all of which could be used to help build back this habitat. But, there has never been a system in place to connect these two ends. And that is exactly what the Instream Wood Bank Network is designed to accomplish.”
Current wood bank locations being eyed in Lewis County are Chehalis, Morton and Randle, for the wood to be used on the Chehalis, Tilton and Cowlitz rivers, respectively. Onalaska, Tenino and Oakville are also tentatively being considered for wood bank locations.
“This is a game-changer for aquatic restoration,” said Brice Crayne of the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group, one of many partner groups in the new initiative. Other partners and stakeholders include the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office and others.
The initiative is in response to dwindling salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest. As of June 2019, 14 different salmon and steelhead populations in Washington state were listed as either endangered or threatened by the WDFW.
Chinook salmon populations declined 60 percent in the Salish Sea from 1984 to 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA lists habitat change as one of the three main contributing factors to the decline of Chinook salmon.
Historically, salmon runs in the Columbia River numbered between 10-16 million fish a year.
Today, less than 5 percent of historic populations of wild salmon and steelhead return to Pacific Northwest rivers and streams.
Tara Galuska, the salmon selection manager for the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO), said many of the RCO’s grant recipients use wood in their instream restoration projects to improve salmon spawning and rearing habitats. She said wood adds complexity to a river, slowing it down and creating gravel bars that are suitable for spawning, along with pools for refuge and shelter from fast-flowing water. Wood can also protect against bank erosion, keeping increased sediment out of the rivers which can hinder spawning.
“We know that wood is an important part of the ecosystem processes of a river,” Galuska said in an email. “Wildlife benefit from a healthy river and healthy salmon runs… providing a source of wood to grant recipients could be very helpful to them in implementing their restoration projects in rivers.”
Salmon, a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest, transfer energy and nutrients between the Pacific Ocean and freshwater and land habitats. Since Chinook are the largest salmonid, they contribute the largest amount of biomass (organic matter) per fish to the ecosystem. In fact, in areas that have experienced dramatic declines in salmon, there is a measurable deficit of nutrients to help support the ecosystem, according to the EPA.
More than 135 other fish and wildlife populations benefit from the presence of wild salmon and steelhead, according to David Montgomery, a geomorphologist and professor at the University of Washington.
That includes everything from bald eagles to southern resident killer whales, which are at a 30-year population low, to black bears. Because salmon die after spawning, their carcasses provide abundant food and nutrients to plants and animals, including aquatic insects and other invertebrates that in turn provide food for other animals.
Steelhead, perhaps the most popular sport fish in the state, have also been on the decline in the state for decades. All but one coastal steelhead run in the state is expected to have well below its escapement goal in 2021. The Chehalis River is expected to have 2,000 fewer steelhead than the spawning goal of 8,600. That prompted the WDFW to ban steelhead and salmon fishing from floating devices from Dec. 14 to at least April 2021.
Halsey said the CFC is planning to begin collecting wood and depositing them at wood banks across Southwest Washington sometime in 2021. The group hopes to begin transferring woods to river restoration sites by the end of 2021.
Funding comes from grants and private foundations, he said, and the CFC hopes to charge a small storage and transfer fee to offset some of the costs of moving the wood, which will help generate funds to pay for contractors and coordination in hopes of creating a self-sustaining program down the road.
The CFC is also looking for wood wherever it can find it, and urges landowners to contact them if they have wood to sell or donate to the initiative.
“We’re always looking for landowners who have trees that are fallen down, or are working with arborists to remove trees,” Halsey said.
“We want them to consider reaching out to us as we may be interested in using that wood and putting it to good use.”