Protecting Healthy Streams in Washington | Cascade Forest Conservancy

Healthy Streams

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:

  • Beaver reintroduction – Reintroducing beavers to enhance the resilience of aquatic ecosystems that are threatened by climate change
  • Riparian planting – Re-establishing native riparian vegetation along degraded waterways to enhance habitat for aquatic species
  • Suction dredge mining – Advocating for reforms to state suction dredge mining regulations that better protect fish habitat and water quality
  • Forest roads – Reducing water pollution from forest roads by doing road surveys, and using the data to encourage the Forest Service to decommission, close, or fix problem roads
  • Opposing mining operations – Opposing mine exploration and development along the Green River near Mount St. Helens


Beaver Reintroduction

Beavers were nearly driven to extinction by trapping, but due to reduced economic incentives and modern regulations on trapping seasons and equipment, they have made a comeback in some areas of the western United States. In the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, there are many areas where beavers once occupied but are no longer found. Historically, beavers helped create and maintain aquatic systems in many parts of the forest, and without their existence, these areas are more at-risk from climate impacts. Beavers are often thought of as a nuisance, but they are an important species that has 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.

The Cascade Forest Conservancy, in partnership with Cowlitz Indian Tribe, embarked on a multi-year beaver reintroduction project in the spring of 2017. As of December 2019, the project team surveyed approximately 120 potential reintroduction sites in and around the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, engaged 181 adult volunteers and 339 students in habitat surveys and other fieldwork, and released 21 beavers to four different sites in the Gifford Pinchot.

The overarching goal of the Cascades Beaver Project is to improve climate resilience for aquatic and riparian habitats in the southern Washington Cascades. Beaver reintroduction accomplishes this goal through the positive impacts beavers have on ecosystems, such as reconnecting and expanding floodplains, improving the health and vitality of riparian corridors, raising water tables, increasing water storage, increasing hyporheic exchange, attenuating flows, decreasing water temperatures, increasing channel complexity, capturing fine sediment, and creating deep pools for fish habitat. These changes can create new areas of climate refugia and enhance connectivity for both terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, which will be increasingly important as climate impacts alter ecosystems in the region. The streams and riparian areas of the southern Washington Cascades provide critical habitat for fish and amphibians, some of which are designated as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Many local habitats are under threat from projected changes in the hydrologic cycle, warming water temperatures, increased sedimentation, and decreases in channel complexity. Beavers have the potential to mitigate some of these negative impacts.

View the habitat spatial analysis here: GPNF Beaver Habitat Model



Suction Dredge Mining

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 in minutes 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. Suction dredge mining also impacts fish habitat by stirring up sediment and toxic metals in 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.

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.  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.

Take Action:

Call or write your representative and ask them to support suction dredge mining reform in Washington. Look up your state representative’s contact information here.

More Information:

Fact Sheet

Earthfix “Gold vs. Salmon” Video

OPB – “Gold vs. Salmon: Fish Advocates and Miners Face Off in Rural Washington”



Forest Roads

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:

  • Closing or decommissioning 17.3 miles of road where access needs are limited and environmental risk is considered moderate or high.
  • Blocking access to multiple unclassified roads that had been used as temporary access to historical timber harvest and were not effectively closed or whose construction was never authorized. These roads were identified through volunteer surveys conducted by the Cascade Forest Conservancy.
  • Performing necessary road repair and maintenance on 15 roads within the same subwatersheds in order to maintain and improve access while protecting resources.
  • Changing the maintenance level on three roads that are currently closed to the public but are needed for administrative management. While these are typically categorized as Level 1, if they are needed for administrative access they should technically be categorized as Level 2, closed to the public. For these roads, no change will occur to current use.

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.


Road Surveys

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 2017 Road Survey Report outlining the results and recommendations from last year’s field efforts. To see our 2016 Road Survey Report, click here.

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.


Roadright Analysis

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.


Analysis results:

Read our RoadRight Analysis Report here


Legacy Roads and Trails

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.