Bobcat and I had a beautiful float recently with friends from Jackson Hole on the South Fork of the Snake River, Idaho: 13,000 cubic feet per second of clear, relatively cold water is a precious sight in an age of global warming.
On the way home, I returned to EFM’s (Ecotrust Forest Management) Desolation Creek property on the North Fork of the John Day River in Northeast Oregon (see ecotrustforests.com for more information). The John Day is the largest undammed watershed in the lower 48, after the Yellowstone River. And, with no hatcheries, it is also the largest wild salmon and steelhead system in the U.S. outside of Alaska. The river’s source are three main tributaries, cleverly named the North, Middle and South Forks. The Middle and South Forks drain from relatively low-elevation ranch country so summer temperatures are generally lethal to salmon and steelhead. The North Fork drains the high country, including 8,000 foot mountains in the John Day Wilderness, such as Vinegar Hill, the source of Desolation Creek, one of its biggest tributaries. This cold water refugia is one of the remaining viable spawning and rearing habitat for chinook salmon and steelhead in the vast Columbia River system—once the most abundant chinook salmon system in the world.
In 2014, Ecotrust Forest Management acquired 13,000 acres of ponderosa pine, tamarack and Douglas fir forest along 12 miles of Desolation Creek surrounded by the Umatilla National Forest. Prior to EFM’s acquisition, the property had been logged hard and intensively grazed for almost 100 years. EFM is now at the beginning of a long-term restoration effort that includes more than a dozen federal and state agencies, local contractors, watershed councils and environmental groups, adjoining landowners, tribes and EFM employees. Their restoration activities are focused on reducing the risk of forest fire, thinning trees from below to reduce stand density, producing fiber for pulp and hog fuel, creating shaded areas to reduce fire risk and improve habitat, removing invasive species, protecting and enhancing natural springs, providing water for cattle away from creeks and springs, and building fences along the riparian zone, to name a few. By leaving the best trees and initiating natural succession towards fire resistant older growth ponderosa pine, restoring springs and seeps and aspen groves, EFM is reducing drought stress and vulnerability to fire, insect and disease, while providing water for cattle from local ranches.
Marty Eisenbraun is EFM’s property manager overseeing the restoration work with the support of EFM senior forester Darin Stringer. Marty told us something interesting. There are 40 springs on the property. Water comes out of the springs at 7 degrees Celsius, but by the time it flows to the Creek (from a few hundred yards up to a mile or so), it is 20 degrees Celsius. Grazing and past logging have removed the riparian vegetation that provides not only critical habitat for a wide variety of song birds and mammals, but the essential shade to keep the water cold for salmon.
To restore riparian vegetation and cold clear water to the Creek, EFM is fencing all the springs, seeps, and wetlands in cooperation with local ranchers to whom we lease grazing rights, along with support and cooperation from an array of state and federal agencies, the Warm Springs and Umatilla Confederated Tribes, and local conservation organizations. It is a small but encouraging part of a Columbia River-wide restoration program led by Ecotrust’s Jim Norton.
To mitigate climate change, restore organic matter to the soil, drawdown CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis in a growing forest, improve wildlife habitat and grassland for cattle, increase local employment and generate appropriate long-term returns to investors, we start with cold clear water at its source. It’s a good story. And it is good for the soul.