By Erick Bengel
CANNON BEACH — A salmon-friendly project, involving large tree trunks strategically placed in Ecola Creek is expected to improve fish habitat in the Ecola Creek Forest Reserve.
On a recent weekday, a Chinook helicopter recently airlifted 109 trees, mostly spruce, in the forest reserve and placed them at 19 preplanned sites along the creek, furnishing the fish with much-needed woody debris.
“One of the main deficiencies in our watershed is the presence of large wood,” said Jesse Jones, coordinator for the North Coast Watershed Association.
By depositing trees directly in the creek along its main stem, north fork and west fork, the project will restore the conditions that make salmon spawning possible.
“It’s kind of refreshing the system for salmon,” said Barry Sims, a forester at Trout Mountain Forest, a consulting firm that specializes in long-term, conservation-based forest management.
. “It creates these braided back channels. During periods of high flow, when the water’s really pushing down, (salmon) can just go into those back channels and kind of hang out and conserve their energy.”
Once carefully placed in the salmon-run areas, the large logs trap smaller pieces of wood. This creates complex debris jams that slow down the water by forcing it to flow around them.
Silt and gravel become suspended in the water and serve as salmon breeding grounds, particularly in the shaded areas beneath the stationary logs.
“Those different-sized gravels are important for salmon- and steelhead-rearing habitat, and they will actually lay eggs in the gravel beds,” said Mike Messier, Sims’ associate at Trout Mountain Forestry.
In addition to slowing down the creek, the log-placement project forces the water back up into the floodplain – or “riparian zone” – which is “where 70 percent of life is in the forest,” Jones said. “Large wood has just a ton of benefits.”
Operation: log drop
Starting at 9:30 a.m., a Chinook, from Columbia Helicopters, relocated an average of 15 or more trees per hour for seven hours at 19 drop sites along the creek.
Throughout the day, workers on the ground fastened cables to the helicopter choker as it hovered, dipped and rose at each location before moving on to the next one, tree in tow.
From the forest floor, two fish biologists – Troy Laws, from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Steve Trask, a consulting biologist and a principal of Bio-Surveys – guided the helicopter to each placement site.
Replacing the woody debris in Ecola Creek is part of the Cannon Beach’s Ecola Creek Forest Reserve management plan, which a 10-member volunteer committee completed in 2012. The plan also prescribes thinning sections of the reserve.
Of the 109 trees moved, 100 were donated to the project by the city of Cannon Beach, which owns 1,000 acres of the Ecola Creek watershed.
Roughly 60 percent of those trees came down naturally during the Great Coastal Gale of December 2007 and smaller subsequent storms, and the remaining 40 percent were freshly felled by Sims and his team at Trout Mountain Forestry. The Campbell Group, a timberland investment company, donated the additional nine trees.
The log-placement project was paid for by a $137,054 grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. The seven-hour airlift portion cost $12,000 per hour.
Trask, whose Alsea-based Bio-Surveys deals in stream restoration and worked to engineer the desired log jams, masterminded the project, said Sims. Both men acted as consultants to the city committee that developed the reserve’s management plan.
“Steve’s been working on this watershed for a long time. He’s the reason we’re here today, and he’s the guy who should get all the greater glory,” said Sims.
Trask has been doing fish surveys in the watershed for more than a decade, Sims added.
Mike Manzulli, chairman of the Ecola Creek Watershed Council, wrote the grant proposal to relocate the logs. He called the day’s undertaking “a good collaborative effort” among the city of Cannon Beach, the watershed council and Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce. The task force served as the fiscal agent for the OWEB grant.
Over the last century, landowners and logging companies forcibly removed much of the woody debris, making the creek clearer, but less livable for salmon.
“There’s actually a great documented history ... of folks taking the wood out of the streams,” Jones said. “They didn’t know what they were doing. They wanted the streams to be navigable.
“To take (the logs) out didn’t take as much as it does to put them back in: as much cost, as much time, as much thought, as much planning,” she said.
Another reason for the disappearance of woody debris is the chronic clear-cutting near the riparian zone.
“So many trees have been logged in the riparian zone that they can no longer fall into the stream,” she said. “So we’ve got to put them back in.”
This story originally appeared at The Daily Astorian.