Rivers, streams, and other waterways within Washington’s south Cascades provide essential habitat for federally-protected fish species, fantastic recreational opportunities, and water to local communities. The Cascade Forest Conservancy’s current work to improve stream and watershed health includes:
Beavers were nearly driven to extinction just over a century ago. A public concern for the decline in beavers led to a nationwide recovery of the species in the mid-1900s. Reduced economic incentives, limited trapping seasons, and modern regulations also aided the increase in beaver populations over time. However, beaver populations have not fully recovered in the western U.S. and many sensitive waterways remain without important ecosystem processes, biodiversity, and stream channel complexity. Beavers are often thought of as nuisances, but they are a keystone species that have the ability to greatly influence many functions within an ecosystem. They are shown to be effective aquatic restoration engineers, able to increase channel complexity, create in-stream habitat, stabilize hydrologic regimes, and capture fine sediment. For this reason, CFC is beginning a project with Cowlitz Indian Tribe to reintroduce more beavers into the aquatic ecosystems of Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Relocating beavers represents a win-win situation for landowners and land managers and is a cost-effective way to create substantial and lasting change in aquatic ecosystems, at a much larger scale than individual restoration projects. CFC and CIT plan to relocate beavers that live up to their nuisance reputation, that would otherwise be euthanized, from private and state lands into specific watersheds in the national forest where they can improve aquatic health and enhance resilience to climate impacts we expect to see in the future.
CFC’s goal is to release 18 – 25 beavers over two years into strategic locations in the GPNF. To date, we have carried out site visits with Forest Service biologists and Cowlitz Indian Tribe, completed a spatial analysis to identify optimal release sites, worked with specialists concerning pre-release habitat modifications, planted willows for future beaver forage, and set up plans with local hatcheries to serve as holding facilities for the beavers. As the year progresses, we will continue to assess more potential beaver relocation sites, and once those sites are chosen, the acquisition of beavers from landowners will begin. From there, beavers will be paired with a mate to enhance the success of establishing a colony once relocated, housed for brief periods of time at local hatcheries and then released into their new habitat. Monitoring efforts will continue well past the end of the project to analyze the impacts the beavers make to the aquatic ecosystems.
The rivers of Washington are valued for their scenic beauty, pristine water quality, exceptional recreational opportunities, and as important fish habitat. Some of these rivers are critical habitat for fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including steelhead, salmon, and bull trout. Every year, Washington invests hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on salmon and steelhead recovery. These recovery efforts can be destroyed by suction dredge mining, a type of recreational mining that uses a suction dredge pump and hose to vacuum up the sediments on the river bottom to search for gold. The sediment is released in a plume, along with the toxic metals that were once settled in the sediment. The release of toxic metals from the sediment increases the risk of exposure to fish. Suction dredge mining also impacts fish habitat by releasing sediment into the water, and destroying redds (spawning nests) and refugia.
The laws governing suction dredge mining leave the practice relatively unregulated in Washington, especially when compared to neighboring states. The current laws allow suction dredge mining on rivers throughout the state, including on rivers that are closed to fishing to protect endangered and threatened fish populations. To mine with a suction dredge, an operator only needs a copy of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Gold and Fish pamphlet, which acts as a general permit. The Gold and Fish pamphlet outlines time frames for rivers throughout Washington when suction dredge mining is allowed. However, suction dredge mining may occur outside these time frames if the miner receives a separate permit from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Also, the time frames for suction dredge mining established in the Gold and Fish pamphlet allows suction dredge mining in some river sections during spawning, risking the survival of federally-listed fish.
Continuing to allow suction dredge mining under the current regulations poses a serious risk to fish populations and water quality throughout Washington. In 2014, the Cascade Forest Conservancy began working with the Fish Not Gold coalition to address the harmful impacts of suction dredge mining in Washington. In 2017, HB 1106 and HB 1077 were introduced by Rep. Gael Tarleton and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon. In January we testified in support of these bills that would require individual permits and move Washington toward compliance with the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. We continue to advocate for suction dredge mining reform in Washington that requires individual permits, licensing fees, and enhanced protections for endangered and threatened fish populations.
The road system on national forest lands is arguably the single largest source, direct and indirect, of environmental damage to the surrounding ecosystem. Roads fragment habitat, create barriers for fish, lead to increased sedimentation in streams, and increase human impact on plant and animal communities. The forest road system in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (GPNF) is in need of review. The GPNF has over 4,000 miles of system road (enough to go to Texas and half way back). Many of these roads were built between the years of 1950-1990, primarily for the heavy timber harvesting of the era. Since that time, needs for and uses of the system have shifted dramatically as timber harvest has declined and other uses, such as recreation, have grown. Road restoration is an important step in improving water quality, restoring fish and wildlife habitat, creating enhanced opportunities for experiencing wild lands and pristine forests, lessening the spread of invasive plant species, and supporting public access to key recreation areas.
Over the last few years, the Cascade Forest Conservancy has conducted on-the-ground road surveys, carried out a forest-wide GIS analysis, and conducted a public opinion survey to capture important information about the use and impact of roads in the forest. We have also worked to increase funding for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program to help the Forest Service maintain necessary roads, reclaim unnecessary or problem roads, and repair trails, culverts, bridges, and stream crossings. We are continuing our efforts to collect on-the-ground data on the status of roads and culverts, and we will continue our work to promote road restoration in the GPNF, including collaborative projects to tackle large road restoration issues.
In July 2015, we submitted a comment letter to the Forest Service concerning the recently published draft of the Travel Analysis Plan. The draft plan brings back an antiquated model of timber-focused forest planning, and it suggests keeping an unnecessarily large amount of roads active on the system for timber extraction using a budget dependent on increasing timber harvests. Our intent is to encourage the Forest Service to consider a more sustainable road restoration plan and to work to reduce the amount of degrading road miles in our national forest.
We are glad to report that the draft decision notice was published on January 12, 2017 and includes closing 17.3 miles of roads and blocking many of the unclassified roads that wind through the project area. The work of our road survey volunteers (carried out in 2014, 2015, and 2016) was instrumental in helping identify roads that were impacting aquatic habitat and prioritizing which roads were to be considered for closure. The plan has also outlined steps to properly block, using large earthen berms or other closure methods, the unclassified routes that have been illegally re-opened through OHV use and the circumventing of blockades. These unclassified roads were documented and mapped by volunteers during our road surveys in 2015 and 2016.
We are glad to see this partnership actively advancing meaningful restoration and habitat improvement in the forest, for the benefit of fish and wildlife impacted by habitat fragmentation and erosion. By decreasing the amount of roads on this large road network, the agency can more effectively update and maintain the roads that are needed and important, and which cause expensive repercussions when they fail or wash out during high flow events.
The Upper Lewis River Roads Project is a standalone road restoration and decommissioning project. We hope to see similar stand-alone road restoration projects like this in the future, as these types of steps are critical for restoring important habitat areas and improving aquatic ecosystems in the forest. The draft decision for the Upper Lewis River Roads Project includes:
Our official comment letter can be found here.
We have also recently commented on another roads project occurring in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a plan to rehabilitate several roads that were impacted during the heavy stream flows of winter 2015-2016. These comments, which can be viewed here, were submitted along with WildEarth Guardians and Washington Trails Association.
The road surveys of the Cascade Forest Conservancy bring an important conservation focus to roads management and the Travel Analysis planning of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. On-the-ground road surveys pinpoint restoration needs by locating culverts that are blocking fish passage, measuring erosion and sedimentation effects, highlighting areas of misuse, and helping map the existence of roads that are not presently part ecological plans or GPNF road maps.
Click here to see our 2016 Road Survey Report outlining the results and recommendations from last year’s field efforts.
Click here to visit our trip sign-up page if you’d like to take part in upcoming field surveys. Road surveys are a great way to visit new areas of the forest while helping with the conservation and restoration of the forest ecosystem.
In an effort to add valuable ecological data to the Travel Analysis planning process and the planning of road restoration opportunities in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, we have undertaken the work of overseeing the completion of a forest-wide GIS roads analysis and transferring this information to the Forest Service for incorporation into the planning process. Based on variables such as slope, habitat overlap, area designations, stream intersections, and sedimentation, this analysis highlights which roads are likely to have the greatest impacts on the National Forest. The results can serve as a filter to help the agency in determining priority roads for repair, closing, or decommissioning during the Travel Analysis process and for future management projects.
The GIS analysis employed the use of the RoadRight model, which is a decision support system that uses social and ecological criteria to prioritize opportunities for road restoration in national forests. It is intended to be science-based, simple, transparent, flexible, and scalable. In 2013, we contracted Bird’s Eye GIS to run the RoadRight model to capture and document an important perspective on the road network of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Results of this analysis have been organized into relevant and useable tables with restoration priority ranked according to five different variables: in-stream sedimentation index, stream crossing index, important areas designation index, isolation index, and a combined risk measure. These tables and the related maps have been compiled in our RoadRight Analysis Report, presented to agency representatives, and transferred to planning specialists.
In partnership with a coalition called the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative, the Conservancy is working to increase federal funding to support road-related restoration in our national forests. The coalition was instrumental in establishing the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program (LRT) in 2008 and works to increase federal funding for the program annually. Between 2008 and 2014, over $23 million of LRT funding was invested on national forest lands in Washington State to address road-related problems through maintenance, repair, and reclamation of forest roads and culverts. During the first seven years of the program, 229 miles of deteriorating roads were decommissioned, 2,014 miles of road were maintained or improved, 12 bridges were constructed or reconstructed, 36 culverts were replaced or repaired to improve fish passage, and 104 miles of trail were maintained or improved in Washington State.
CFC is also working to ensure sufficient LRT program funding is directed to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. We work closely with the Forest Service to identify priority road restoration projects that can be funded through the LRT program and retained receipts.
In 1968, the Wild and Scenic River Preservation System was created to protect rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition. Rivers may be designated by Congress or the Secretary of the Interior. Designation establishes a corridor of a quarter-mile on either side of the river, although changes may be made to this corridor to protect river values. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act prohibits federal support for dam construction or other activities that would interfere with the free-flowing condition, the water quality, or the outstanding resource values of the river.
Within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, only the Upper and Lower White Salmon are designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers. In 2005, Congress designated the Upper White Salmon River as a Wild and Scenic River. As part of that designation, the Forest Service is preparing a Comprehensive Resource Management Plan to provide for the protection of the river and to establish a final Wild and Scenic River boundary. The CFC continues to be engaged with CRMP development process.
The CFC, along with our partners, identified rivers eligible for Wild and Scenic designation within Washington’s South Cascades. These “Volcano Country” rivers have outstanding recreation, fisheries, wildlife, and historic values. Despite their outstanding values, these rivers have no permanent protection from harmful projects. Through Wild and Scenic designations, these rivers will receive the permanent protection their outstanding values deserve.
After 20 years of work by conservation organizations and their supporters, including the Cascade Forest Conservancy, Yakama Indian Nation, and PacifiCorp; the 95-year old, 125-foot Condit Dam was breached on October 26, 2011. Watch a video of the dam removal here.
In 2009, after ten years of advocacy, the Conservancy was excited to announce that Hemlock Dam was removed. Amazingly, steelhead returned to the creek the day after water was returned to the stream channel!