Using tools of destruction to restore redwoods

  • Pacific Watershed Associates staffers prepare forest road for closure

    Jim Hight

ARCATA, Calif. - In a dense forest of second-growth redwoods next to a logging road, Bill Weaver bounces on a culvert pipe so rusted it's ready to collapse. A stagnant pool of water is the only sign of the torrent that will gush through the pipe when autumn rains start.

"If this culvert hasn't already collapsed, it will get plugged with debris. The water will back up," says Weaver, using his hands to show it rising like a reservoir behind the dirt road. "Then it will run over the road, and all this sediment goes into the stream - about a thousand (cubic) yards." That much sediment would quickly cement in gravels and destroy pools and riffles that are critical for endangered salmon and steelhead that spawn in streams like this one, he explains.

But this road will not have a chance to wash out into the stream below. It's going out the way it arrived: in dump trucks. "One hundred dump-truck loads," specifies Weaver's partner, Danny Hagans.

Armed with a fleet of dump trucks and a 35-ton excavator, a machine built like a tank that can scoop three tons of dirt at a time, Weaver and Hagans, both former National Park Service geologists, are spreading a gospel of watershed restoration that may give wild salmon and steelhead their best chance of surviving in Western forests.

While the forest-protection movement has agitated and litigated to clean up existing roads and stop timber companies from building new ones, Weaver and Hagans have worked from the inside to gain the trust of those who control the land. They're slowly convincing timber companies, federal and tribal land managers and state forestry regulators in five Western states that to close a road without "proactively erosion-proofing it" is to condemn a watershed and its inhabitants to decades of illness.

Bring in the heavy machinery

Hagans' and Weaver's methods evolved over 12 years as they worked on one of the most extensive watershed restoration projects in the world.

When the Redwood National Park was established in 1968, it included only a narrow riparian strip of Redwood Creek, with small groves of ancient redwoods on the river benches. But just because the trees were in a park didn't mean they were safe. Upstream, timber companies were building roads and cutting timber on private land. Heavy winter rains washed so much sediment out of the roads and clear-cuts in the basin, that the lower river channel began to fill in. This caused flooding and bank erosion that toppled redwoods in the park.

In 1978, ancient trees crashing to the ground prompted Congress to expand the park by 48,000 acres, to include about one-third of the basin. Weaver, Hagans and other federal scientists went to work trying to piece the watershed back together again.

"In the beginning, we were spending 90 percent of the money on labor-intensive treatments: willow waddles, contour terracing, check dams, hand-armoring channels, seeding, planting, mulching," says Weaver. But after a couple of years of monitoring the work, they had a restoration epiphany: The low-tech methods weren't nearly as effective as removing dirt with heavy equipment. The ultimate restoration tool was an excavator, a huge machine with a hydraulic arm that reaches 35 feet in any direction to scoop tons of dirt at a time.

After 1980, excavation of unstable road fill became the primary method for restoration in Redwood Creek. With dozers and dump trucks, the unwanted fill was moved to relatively flat locations where it wouldn't erode into stream channels.

Weaver and Hagans liked their work, which included stints at Yosemite, Mount Rainier and other national parks. "It was a wonderful interdisciplinary environment," remembers Hagans. And they saw it paying off; by the late 1980s, more than 140 miles of roads had been treated.

But they wanted to try their approach on a broader scale. "We wanted to reduce the impacts of land management on fish," said Weaver. "We knew we were not going to stop (timber) management, but we could treat the road systems to prevent and control erosion."

By 1990, they'd left the Park Service and formed Pacific Watershed Associates, assessing erosion problems for public and tribal land managers and environmental groups, including Pacific Rivers Council, which hired them to assess erosion problems in Oregon's South Umpqua basin.

A recipe for restoration

Within a couple of years, as environmental lawsuits and the Endangered Species Act changed the political landscape in northern California, private timberland owners came knocking. With activists about to succeed in getting federal agencies to list coho salmon as threatened or endangered, the companies felt the need to clean up their acts.

At about the same time, the Clinton administration came out with "jobs in the woods' money for unemployed loggers and fishermen to do restoration work.

"By 1995, we had trained 20 fishermen to figure out where erosion was coming from on roads," said Hagans. "They were working on land owned by Pacific Lumber, Barnum, Simpson, Miller Rellim, Sierra Pacific."

The fishermen most proficient at the work have made a career out of it, working for the association or the nonprofit Pacific Coast Restoration. Pacific Watershed Associates grew to employ a staff of 10.

One of the company's strongest assets is its low political profile. "Our strategy is to get our foot in the door with the big industrial landowners and show them what they can do," says Weaver. "We can outline more (restoration) work than these landowners can afford to do. Other people have to push them on the (timber) harvest issues."

"It's not really PWA's job to decide the public-policy issues," said David Bayles of Pacific Rivers Council. "That's our job ... They are the experts on the technical matters of the problems that roads create, which of those problems can be fixed and how to fix them in the most biologically effective and cost-effective way.

"Bill and Danny are probably the nation's foremost authorities on this stuff, no exaggeration."

The author writes in Arcata, California.

You can contact ...

* Pacific Watershed Associates at 707/ 839-5130; the group has published a Handbook for Forest and Ranch Roads. Copies are available from the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District, 405 Orchard Ave., Ukiah, CA 95842 (707/468-9223).

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