Voyage of the Dammed

Nature’s engineers — and environmental heroes — make a comeback

  • Beavers' "precision logging" of aspen trees into upper Tasha Creek in Fishlake National Forest, Utah.

    Photo courtesy Mary O'Brien
  • A newly constructed beaver dam, made possible because only sheep -- not cattle -- graze along the streams. Mary O'Brien of Grand Canyon Trust is working toward getting cows removed from the entire 5-mile stretch Tasha Creek, to make way for more dams.

    Photo courtesy Mary O'Brien
  • The beavers are back in Dry Creek on Charlie Ernst's 5,700 acres in central Oregon. The creek used to run with water only a few days in the spring. Now, with 20 beaver dams, it runs for months.

    Josh Thompson, Wasco County
  • Felix Aripa, a Coeur d'Alene tribal elder

    Kevin Taylor
  • Michael Pollock, with NOAA Fisheries

    Kevin Taylor
  • Mary O'Brien, with Grand Canyon Trust

    Tim Clark
 

LIBERTY LAKE, WASHINGTON

Even with a tall wooden cross mounted on the wall behind her, Mary O'Brien doesn't look like a typical preacher. In her blue cardigan and jeans, a single heavy braid falling like a gray rope down her back, she paces slowly from side to side, telling her listeners that we are worshipping a false landscape.

She means the West of fast-flowing streams and invitingly open banks, celebrated in photographs and songs and pickup truck commercials. That West is a modern illusion, she warns, even though we accept it as gospel and praise its beauty.

Several dozen people lean forward in the burnt-orange pews, intently focusing on O'Brien's message.

We have lost touch with a truer, older West, she goes on. But there is a savior who can lead us back to it: the beaver.

Castor canadensis, believe it or not, is a time shifter. The humble, hardworking rodent, through its dams and ponds, can extend the release of water late into summer, saturating the ground and healing watersheds. It has the power to re-create the primordial, wetter West that existed for millennia -- a West we just missed seeing.

"Restoration of the beaver is restoration of a landscape we don't have a cultural connection to," O'Brien says, "because they largely were trapped out."

Let us repent.

Beaver are a keystone species: Amen. Beaver restore riparian habitat: Amen. Beaver raise up the water table: Amen. Beaver show us the Western landscape as it was just prior to permanent white settlement. A big amen for this.

"You're not just preaching to the choir," someone sings out. "We are actually in the pews!"

O'Brien, a commandingly tall and angular woman who's a Grand Canyon Trust project manager, helped organize this "Working Beaver Conference." The setting -- creaky old Zephyr Lodge on Liberty Lake, just east of Spokane -- is a Christian-run conference center, which explains the pews and the cross.

About 70 enthusiasts in the lonely world of beaver restoration -- including hydrologists, biologists and economists -- have come from around the West for two days of workshops, slideshows and the rare chance to meet like-minded others. Storm-darkened springtime skies cast a gloomy light, but the talk crackles furiously.

North America had at least 60 million beaver before European settlement, according to the most-commonly cited estimate. Explorer David Thompson walked across much of the continent about 200 years ago and observed that it was "in the possession of two distinct races of beings, man and the beaver."

Historical trapping records in the Colorado Rockies show "60 to 80 beaver" per mile of stream, says Trey Schillie, an ecosystem services analyst for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. That abundance was repeated across the West.

But after a century of heavy trapping, the nationwide beaver population had shrunk to an estimated 100,000, and the West held just a fraction of that. Beaver have made a comeback from that low point, but there's a long way to go, according to the beaver-restorers here.

Suzanne Fouty, a Forest Service hydrologist in northeastern Oregon's Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, remembers being on a job along the East Fork of the Gila River in New Mexico years ago. "It was one of those beautiful fall days," she says. "Blue sky … the cottonwoods turning yellow … and a classic stream with a wide channel and shallow water." But when she gushed to others on that job about how pretty it was, "I got reamed out by Susan Schock (the head of the Gila Watch group). She told me I had internalized a degraded stream as natural."

That kind of picture-postcard stream -- typically created by cattle that flattened the banks and severed the connection to groundwater -- shows the imprint of generations of settlers. Prior to settlers and livestock, "there was a lot more slow-flowing water and less of the classic pooly, riffly streams we see now," says Michael Pollock, a Seattle-based ecosystems analyst for the federal NOAA Fisheries Service.

The beaver's West can still be seen, if you have an eye for geomorphic processes, the forces that shape a landscape. "There was about 10,000 years of beaver activity before we came," Pollock says. "You think about how long the beaver was here and what it can do to a landscape, and then you look at some of these high-elevation valleys, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest they were formed by beaver."

O'Brien adds, "People go into the mountains and love to see a meadow and love to see a pond, and so often in the West those were formed by beaver dams. Go to the base of a lot of your meadows in the mountains, and if you poke around, you'll see old, old remains of (beaver) dams."

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