Beaver and restoration - the rest of the story


The June 8th HCN edition included an excellent article on the potential for beaver to restore western watersheds and, in the process, improve water supplies. The piece, however, omitted a few important caveats:

  • Before the occupation of the West by white folks, Beaver did not exist in all Western watersheds. This is reflected in the diaries and history of the mountain men. For example, Jedediah Smith scouted from Colorado to Southern California and then North to Oregon. He found some valleys loaded with beaver; but many of the watersheds he scouted – not only in the Southwest but even in Northern California and Oregon -contained no or only a scattering of beaver.
  • Many of the places beaver thrived are now fields of alfalfa or pastures for cattle. The Scott Valley where I lived for 40 years was once known as Beaver Valley. The first year Hudson Bay trappers worked it, they took out 50 mules loaded with beaver pelts. But there is no way the beaver are going to be restored in this valley; that would require moving out the people and the cattle. Beaver are still being killed in the Scott Valley as varmints today.
  • Even where beaver are natural and can be restored the water regime may not return to pre-white-settlement condition. That is because many of the slopes above the steams have been severely altered by humans. The West’s and likely the world’s largest reservoirs are its upland forest soils. Healthy forest soil generally is about 1/3 open space. It is these spaces which fill with water during the wet season and slowly release that water during the dry season. But humans have logged the majority of the West’s upland forests. Most of the logging has been done with big, heavy machines which compress the soil reducing or even eliminating the spaces where water is held and slowly released. Millions of miles of roads have been built to extract the timber and for other purposes and these too cause water to run off without the chance of storage by forest soil. Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, when asked not too long ago why she chose to plant trees, replied that everyone knew that where there are trees there is also water. Here in the West that knowledge has been lost. We have been encouraged to ignore the critical role that forest soil plays in retaining water and releasing it slowly to streams. 

The movement to make a partnership with the Beaver People in order to restore western watersheds is welcome. But it is not a silver bullet that can solve the West’s thirst or restore our rivers. For that to take place we need not only beaver restoration but also the restoration of our upland forests and healthy forest soil. And in order for that to take place we will need to first overcome the still prevalent myth that logging can enhanced water supplies.

High Country News Classifieds