Besides federal and state agencies, the Yurok Tribe Fisheries Program is the largest fisheries management organization in California.
For hundreds if not thousands of years, tribes of the Klamath basin have been intrinsically linked to salmon, steelhead and the waterways that breed them.
Today, commercial harvesting of chinook salmon is an economic driver for the Yuroks, with tribal fishermen pulling in close to $3 million last season — sometimes making around $1,000 a day.
In order to sustain and improve this resource, the Yurok tribe has acquired and spent millions of dollars in grant funding to restore fisheries in the Lower Klamath.
In a three-part series beginning today and continuing in March and April, the Triplicate will take a look at the three aspects of Yurok fisheries restoration work: habitat restoration, up-slope restoration (primarily tearing out old logging roads) and fish monitoring.
Re-wooding the creeks
Less than three miles from U.S. Highway 101, Terwer Creek enters the Klamath River next to the small community of Klamath Glen.
Like most of the Lower Klamath sub-basin, Terwer Valley was heavily logged in the 1950s and ’60s, including much of the fallen wood that naturally occurs in the creek bed and the riparian forests adjacent to the stream.
Decades ago, even the California Department of Fish and Game (way before the recent name change to Department of Fish and Wildlife) recommended removing wood from streams to improve fish passage, according to restoration specialists.
Additionally, the Arrow Mills Company sawmill operated east of Terwer Creek close to the mouth and a large mill pond was built, blocking floodplain and potential fish habitat. For years, the land was used as pasture to raise cattle. Dozens of feral cattle still roam the landscape, tribal officials said.
The majority of private land in the Lower Klamath River is now owned by Green Diamond Resource Company, including the Terwer Creek Valley, Hunter Creek and McGarvey Creek restoration sites, and the Yurok Tribe considers Green Diamond a restoration partner.
When the Yurok tribe started restoring Terwer Creek almost 10 years ago, the stream was flat — lacking the natural riffles, side channels and deep pools that provide fish habitat. Especially missing was the low-velocity habitat crucial for coho salmon, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“Because a lot of our systems like Terwer have really been impacted by logging and other land-use activities, there is not a lot of that low-velocity habitat anymore,” said Sarah Beesley, a high-level fisheries technician who’s worked for Yurok fisheries for more than 10 years.
“Coho are born with big fins” so they are pushed around easily in high flows, which is why “basically from the time they are born, they are searching for low-velocity habitat,” Beesley said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service released a recovery plan for coho salmon in Southern Oregon and Northern California last year. Two of the biggest stressors listed for coho salmon in the Lower Klamath River are lack of floodplain and channel structures, and degraded riparian forests.
The restoration field now recognizes that in-stream wood structures are essential for fish habitat, and the installation of complex engineered logjams is one of the tribe’s primary tools.
The Yurok Tribe Fisheries Program and Rocco Fiori, a geologist contracted by Yurok fisheries, have installed complex engineered log jams in order to re-create a more natural landscape, what they like to call “bio-mimicry.”
First, heavy equipment is used to install large wooden posts into the creek bed, mimicking larger trees that should naturally exist. The tribe pays market timber prices for the posts themselves, preferring high-quality logs for structure longevity.
“We log whole trees with the same size equipment that they used to log for the mills, but we’re logging it for the creeks,” Fiori said. “We’re using the same approach they used to de-wood creeks to re-wood creeks.”
The use of large machinery is a departure from early-restoration techniques that strived to have little impact on the landscape. Then an interlocked pile of logs, branches and brush are piled against the posts — a kind of “log lasagna” that goes several feet down into the creek bed to prevent Terwer’s flows from scouring beneath the structure.
The posts also “act like catcher mitts,” catching additional wood floating down the creek, Beesley said. These logjams create deep pools or guide flows to side channels to create habitat.
‘The next generation’
Although the California Department of Fish and Wildlife includes installation of logjams in the California Salmonid Stream Habitat Restoration Manual, they are typically much simpler than the ones employed by Yurok fisheries and Fiori, who are constructing structures more common to Oregon and Washington.
“It’s a whole trees materials list — you can’t do it with logs without root wads; you can’t do it without branches and tops. It goes back to that bio-mimicry part,” Fiori said. “We’re trying to push restoration in a better direction.”
“There’s a lot of research out there that says that habitat you provide once you construct these type of structures is phenomenally better than a one-to-two log structure that is typical of Fish and Game restoration manual,” Beesley said.
Gary Flosi, a senior environmental scientist with CDFW and regional coordinator for the agency’s fisheries restoration projects, co-authored the first edition of the manual released in 1991. In his 36 years with the department, he has had a lead role in revisions, updates and additions to the restoration manual, and he’s quick to note that “the restoration field keeps evolving.”
Flosi would not go as far as saying that the large logjams installed by Yurok Fisheries are “outside of the manual, but it’s the next generation.”
“Those folks have been really innovative and looked at what other agencies have done in other states” and applied those technique to lower Klamath tributaries, he said. The restoration field is always evolving and there hasn’t been an update to the CDFW manual in 15 years, Flosi said, but there have been additions.
“It’s not a stagnant group of techniques we’re always looking to stay up to date,” he said.
Besides constructing logjams, creating riparian forest is another top tool for Yurok fisheries restoration.
In order to stabilize the flood plains, fisheries staff plants rows of willow branches called “willow baffles.” The first step requires digging 10-foot-deep trenches into the ground. Then willow branches up to 20 feet long are stuck into the ground, buried, and if the soil is right, they will grow.
“Sometimes we put a big piece of wood at the bottom of the trench first, and that helps get them through the dry season” by creating a pool of water, said Aldaron McCovey, a lead fisheries technician who has worked with the tribe for more than 10 years.
The willow baffles are intended to be like speed bumps, slowing down flow during high water events in order to deposit sediment that had been washed away by Terwer’s constant movement exhibited over years without adjacent riparian forest.
“We went from having no trees and no brush on this site to having a 15-year-old forest,” Fiori said.
Before Yurok Fisheries started work in Terwer, the stream was migrating back and forth through the valley up to 20 feet a year, but movement has now stabilized to just a few inches a year, Fiori said.
Replacing soils that have been washed away is a harder task than some might think.
“This (soil) is more irreplaceable than old growth trees,” Fiori said. “We could, in a thousand years, grow a redwood tree to replace the redwood trees that have been lost off this surface, but we can’t in a thousand years replace the soil that’s been lost.
Now natural trees like alders are sprouting in the soils created by the willow baffles, a slow return to the natural landscape.
But not to natural. Beesley and Fiori are quick to point out that Terwer Valley is still owned by a timber company.
“We’re not trying to convert this back to wilderness; this is a working landscape,” Fiori said.
‘Back to life’
Yurok fisheries performs extensive monitoring of Lower Klamath tributaries including in the ponds and side channels created in Terwer Valley.
Juvenile coho salmon using these areas have markedly increased, and even more striking is that the areas are also being used by coho salmon hatched and tagged in creeks 100 miles upriver.
With an increase in waterfowl, migratory birds and fish, the few people who reside in Terwer Valley have said that the Yuroks’ restoration work has brought the valley back to life, Fiori said.
Other residents appreciate how the tribe’s restoration work has reduced flooding on their properties.
Eighty-nine-year-old Beverly Marsaw has been living in lower Terwer Valley since 1957 in the same house that had 24 feet of flood waters up to her second-story ceiling during the 1964 flood that destroyed the old Klamath townsite.
“I’ve lived her for more than 50 years and I seem to be getting less water than I have in the past,” Marsaw said.
“Our work is now visible from space,” Fiori said.
The Yurok Fisheries restoration work is 100 percent grant-funded with primary funding partners including California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Fisheries Restoration Grant Program), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation.