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Helicopters place thousands of logs in Washington streams for fish
11/19/2018 9:05 AM
Columbia Helicopter crew members and Yakama Nation fish biologists build instream structures along Little Naches River.
When helicopter pilots were first asked to bring fallen trees back into the forest, there was a bit of confusion. They are used to taking wood out of the forest on its way to the mill. Things are different these days.
BPA and the Yakama Nation, long-term partners in habitat restoration, are giving new life to old logs by placing them in streams to improve fish habitat. On Nov. 5, the Tribe hosted an event to showcase their most recent project that is scheduled to be completed by then end of November. It includes sites in Kittitas and Yakima counties Washington.
Since the start of fall and at the Tribes direction, pilots from Columbia Helicopters have been using their Vertol 107-II to place over 6,000 trees on more than 24 miles of instream habitat along the Lick, Swauk, Untanum, Manastash, Little Rattlesnake and Satus creeks, and the Little Naches River.
The pilots have become experts at placing trees exactly where ground crews direct them to. They communicate with each other by radio, hand signals and colored flagging tape. Together the team builds intricate wood structures designed by fish biologists and engineers to improve instream habitat and withstand the forces of seasonal floodwaters.
When compared to using other types of heavy machinery, helicopters have become the tool of choice when doing stream restoration projects in remote, hard to access watersheds. They get the work done very quickly with very little ground disturbance.
Properly constructed instream wood structures reduce stream velocity and pushes water into streamside floodplains and wetlands, many of which have been disconnected for decades as a result of past forest practices. Restored wetlands filter water and recharge water tables.
“This project is what will keep our creeks from running dry,” said Kelly Clayton, a habitat biologist with Yakama Nation. “It will mean more cool water for fish during the months when they need it the most.”
Changing water flows also creates places for fish to rest, hide from predators and search for food, as well as sort river gravel to improve spawning habitat.
The instream wood installations are intended to benefit migratory steelhead, coho and chinook salmon, as well as resident bull and cutthroat trout. Improved habitat conditions for fish will also benefit wildlife populations.
Many organizations have been collaborating over the past two years to make this project a success. The Yakama Nation was the lead on the entire project, and the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group was a co-sponsor at two locations. The U.S. Forest Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are landowners on different parts of the restoration effort. Some of the wood used to build the instream structures was donated by The Nature Conservancy from a recent forest thinning project. The $2 million project construction costs were shared between BPA, McNary Mitigation Fund, the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Resource Conservation Council.
Yakama Nation Tribal Council members celebrate the stream restoration project. From left to right: Jerry Meninick, Delano Saluskin, Gerald Lewis, Leland Bill and Virgil Lewis.
Despite all the advance planning, many on the project team felt like it was a sprint to cross the finish line. Elizabeth Bowers from BPA was called on to conduct last-minute environmental surveys when it became clear the helicopter equipment and material staging area were going to be larger than initially anticipated. Work in the Teanaway Community Forest, northwest of Ellensburg, had to avoid interfering with this year’s elk hunting season. And the schedule left little time before the onset of winter weather would make it too dangerous, if not impossible, to operate the helicopter at the project’s altitude in cold temperatures. This tension only added to the excitement for the team.
During the event, it was clear to all who watched the helicopter work that the landscape was being changed in beneficial and lasting ways. The fruits of this labor will be shared by the current generations of fish and by all of those who worked to restore habitat in the Yakima River Basin.
On hand to share in the significance of this accomplishment at the Nov. 5 event were Yakama Nation Tribal Council members Vice-Chair Virgil Lewis, Chair of the Natural Resources Committee Gerald Lewis, Economic Development Chair Leland Bill, Delano Saluskin and former General Council Chair Jerry Meninick.
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