Working Community Forests
This project, like other work contracted with RFFI, is aimed at reducing erosion and sedimentation and opening the stream once again to spawning fish.
Danny received his BS in Geology from Humboldt State University in 1977. He is co-founder and principal earth scientist of Pacific Watershed Associates (PWA), a geologic consulting firm specializing in watershed restoration with offices in Arcata and Petaluma.
Danny oversees all restoration work in RFFI's Usal Redwood Forest and guides PWA geologists Tom Leroy and Melissa Foster who direct day-to-day operations there. This is what he had to say about his work for RFFI.
During the late '70s and into the early '80s, our professional staff grew in size from six scientists and technicians to a fifty-person interdisciplinary team at the park that dealt with figuring out geomorphically and hydrologically, how to put heavily managed and damaged watersheds back together again, as best we can, and learned what is beyond our capabilities and what isn't, from an erosion control and rehabilitation perspective.
As PWA, we've steadily grown over the last twenty years to 37 full-time employees as of January 1st, 2009. With the state's economic downturn, we're currently down to 18 full-time employees. It's been a disastrous year. We've never had to lay off more than about four people in the past twenty year period. All this year's layoffs were triggered by the state budget crisis and the December 2008 freezing of dozens of Cal Fish and Game and State Water Board projects that PWA was already under contract to complete. Most all these projects are still frozen as we speak.
PWA is a major cooperator with most industrial landowners, as well as non-profit groups such as Trout Unlimited, Pacific Rivers Council, The Conservation Fund, Sanctuary Forest, Pacific Coast Fisheries, Watersheds and Wetlands Association, Landpaths, the YES group in the Van Duzen River watershed, and Save the Redwoods League throughout Northern California. We've worked extensively with many Resource Conservation Districts, as well as Open Space Districts, county and state parks, Marin Water District, and Army National Guard, primarily in wildland settings. PWA has numerous ongoing watershed rehabilitation projects focusing on roads, but several of these projects include channel restoration and channel monitoring efforts on lands as far south as Santa Barbara. We work on a wide range of public and private properties.
PWA has been involved with Trout Unlimited's (TU) Mendocino Coastal Coho Recovery Program since it began. Steve Trafton and Craig Bell of TU and I first contacted the newly formed Mendocino Redwood Timber Company (MRC) in about 1998. These meetings resulted in the first sediment source assessment on MRC lands in the South Fork Garcia River, and the subsequent on-the-ground implementation of their erosion control plan. This South Fork project was followed by additional assessments and / or implementation projects in the Big and Noyo Rivers, as well as in nearby Hollow Tree Creek and Cottoneva Creek watersheds. Just this last year, TU honored the Fisher family, owners of MRC, for their ten year effort to recover and protect salmonid habitat in Mendocino coastal streams on their ownership.
Trout Unlimited expanded its efforts to Campbell-Hawthorne lands around 2003, and PWA began doing projects in Ten Mile River, Pudding Creek and a few other areas. Early on in the TU, PWA and Campbell partnership, PWA provided hands-on training to heavy equipment operators and foresters on proper road drainage techniques, and worked with resource managers to develop an effective erosion control program. All this occurred shortly after Steve Levesque arrived as Campbell's timberland manager. From my perspective, it has been marvelous to see the aggressive rate of progress not only on Campbell lands, but also on MRC managed lands, in effective storm-proofing (upgrading) and decommissioning of problematic, poorly designed and drained roads in order to give salmonid streams a chance at recovery.
In about 2004, PWA and TU submitted a proposal to Cal Fish & Game on Campbell's behalf to inventory all the roads in Standley Creek in what is now RFFI's Usal Forest. We chose Standley Creek because Campbell's resource management staff had determined this stream held the highest value for fish, and aquatic recovery of the streams under their ownership in the South Fork Eel River watershed. Funding was received from Fish and Game, and this began the restoration process in Standley Creek watershed. One important thing we learned from the sediment source assessment was our normal budgeted amount of time and money to inventory the roads was way under-estimated, because there was such a high percentage of the roads that were abandoned for many decades and densely overgrown with vegetation. Consequently, field staff would have to traverse the same road several days in a row in order to complete the assessment.
We completed the Stanley Creek assessment in 2006, and immediately in 2007 applied to Cal Fish & Game, again through Trout Unlimited, for the first phase of implementation funding. PWA and Campbell professionals developed a six phase plan for decommissioning most of the 1950's constructed roads on these steep, inner gorge slopes in the watershed, and Campbell agreed that they would be responsible on their own dime to upgrade the remaining non-inner gorge roads as part of developing a long-term, permanent transportation system that would allow for future management of this watershed. So it was great when RFFI's goals were finally met and they were able to purchase the property in 2007, because we had so much in place already. In 2008, we applied for a second phase of road decommissioning implementation through Fish & Game and received the funding. We just had a "show-me" recently with Fish and Game, seeking funding for a third phase of road decommissioning, so things are moving forward -- keep your fingers crossed we get the funding. For each phase of road decommissioning, we are requesting 70% of the project costs from Fish and Game, and Campbell / RFFI is providing a cost share of 30%.
I've got a very capable and professional staff. They're mostly college grads with degrees in the earth sciences, hydrology or watershed science. There's a lot for field staff conducting the inventories to figure out, especially on ground like this that was logged 50 to 60 years ago. What are natural drainages verses gullies on the hillslopes? Where are the man-made channels on the hillsides? How much can you put Humpty Dumpty back together again, from the perspective of re-establishing natural drainage patterns and normalizing the sediment production regime, versus what erosional feature is not controllable or has more or less completed the erosion process- i.e. what are your limits? We remove a lot of trees in some places, because they are growing on unstable ground or on man-made features or structures, such as roads. Even though there may be 18 inch trees growing on the roads, some are at sites that are slowly eroding and annually delivering some volume of sediment to streams.
RFFI: Is that what is happening here?
DH: Yes, with a big stream crossing like this, the whole road was forested with similar-aged trees as those you're seeing. They had to be cleared, so that we could remove the large volume of eroding, man-made fill associated with the stream crossing.
The field assessment process is systematic and involves a complete understanding of geologic, geomorphic and hydrologic processes, and how they are affected by land management activities. The assessment process is described in the Cal Dept of Fish and Game Salmonid Stream Habitat Restoration Manual - see Chapter 10 on their web site. It involves identifying sites, locations of both past and future sediment delivery to streams, quantifying the volume of potential future erosion and sediment delivery, evaluating and prioritizing the potential likelihood of future erosion, prioritizing the need for / immediacy to correct or treat the erosional problem, and determining the recommended corrective treatments or measures at the site. So if we came to a stream crossing like this that was already mostly washed out -- so Mama Nature had kind of recovered her own channel bed --we would still determine the remaining volume of sediment that could erode and be delivered to the streams. We would also evaluate the potential for the erosion to occur, say high, moderate or low, and we can prioritize the immediacy of treating the site. That helps us decide cumulatively along that road whether we want to re-open that road (or not). It assists us in the prioritization of where we want to do work along the road network, based on cubic yards of sediment that could get into the stream over the next several decades and the current stability of the erosional feature that has developed. Finally, at each site, we recommend the most appropriate way to prevent or minimize future erosion. The strength of our assessment process is collecting all the relevant site information, by visiting each road only one time. This allows staff to return to the office and develop a complete cost estimate for implementing the recommended erosion control and erosion prevention measures.
You can imagine how complicated it is to first just figure out what's happened over the last 50 years or so, and what is still likely to happen in the future, with some probability. So it's a professional judgment kind of thing. I work with my staff and mentor them to interpret things geomorphically and hydrologically, so we can feel technically confident about our prioritization of future erosion at sites we present to a regulator, funder or landowner, whether they recognize it at first or not. When a variety of sites are reviewed in the field, they often say, "Oh yeah, this is a higher priority than that site over there." It allows all of us to collectively make decisions about which road segments are going to be part of -- say, in this case, a road decommissioning erosion control package.
We worked very closely with Campbell staff, prior to RFFI's ownership and involvement, to prioritize Usal work. We developed a map of the whole basin identifying roads that will be upgraded, even if for only seasonal use, to provide for long-term management, fire suppression, timber harvest, watershed monitoring activities and whatever the landowner had in mind. Then everyone agreed that we would decommission the inner gorge roads that are down on steep-sided slopes next to all the fish-bearing and larger streams. What we're really doing is developing a future transportation plan for the watershed that's based on good judgment, a knowledge of geomorphic processes and resource values. We are setting the stage for environmentally sound watershed management for hundreds of years in Standley Creek.
Technology, in terms of our understanding in restoring physical processes in a watershed, is not going to change substantially. We've really gone over the hump from no forest practice rules and logging like it was done here in the past, to pretty stringent forest practice rules that are really quite protective of resource values. There is still a big debate between the environmental community and industry, but for the most part, things are substantially better. The amount we can improve and still manage our forests from a physical processes point of view is minor compared to the major leaps that we've gone through prior to now. The road decommissioning and road upgrading plan that Campbell and PWA staff developed is really changing the mode of management in these watersheds forever. Now from a biological and fire point of view, things are far more complicated and less clear concerning watershed processes and functionality.
RFFI: Can you speak briefly about why are you decommissioning so many roads?
DH: We laid out six phases of road decommissioning on these steep, inner gorge slopes in Standley Creek. Campbell and all of us agreed, it was always downhill tractor logging in the past. That's why the roads are down in the streams and adjacent watercourses. That means the trees were felled on these steep slopes and tractor trails went up to the trees, and then the tractors pulled the trees down to roads that are lower in the valleys. It was always more economical to have tractors do it that way. Nowadays, we have cable or helicopter yarding systems for logging on steep, streamside slopes that are potentially very unstable due to active tectonic uplifting in this area. The St. Andreas Fault goes off-shore not too far from here at the Mendocino Triple Junction, so we're in a real mountain-building region. Foresters and everyone agreed that if we are going to log on these slopes in the future, we're going to cable yard from roads that are up above what defines the inner gorge.
This type of work is really changing the whole mode of management for the next century or longer in these watersheds. It's a big leap, and most of the industrial landowners have come to the realization that inner gorge roads that perpetuate downhill logging on steep slopes should be removed. We're removing many of these roads on different ownerships and that's the right way to go.
RFFI: So Phase One is starting out with the most urgent work that should be done?
RFFI: And that in this case, it is getting rid of this old bridge here and working on the Clark Fork tributary to Standley Creek and the adjacent road reaches?
DH: First of all, the Clark Fork is fish-bearing or is a restorable fish stream above the failing crossing. Second, the decision to start along these road reaches and crossings was based on the cubic yards of sediment that could be prevented from entering Standley Creek (i.e. sediment savings), based on the original project assessment. For example, this Clark Fork crossing would have contributed maybe 7,000 to 7,500 cubic yards of sediment to Standley Creek and then into the South Fork of the Eel, were we not properly excavating and removing this crossing. 7,000 cubic yards of sediment is equivalent to 700 of those 10 wheel dump trucks you typically see going down the highway. That's a lot of dirt that could dump into the creeks!
One of the major problems in these watersheds, even though they look forested and they may look nice, is the cumulative effect of sediment: How much sediment and debris is coming out of this crossing -- and there are hundreds of other variably sized stream crossings in Standley Creek,-- and how many fills are showing signs of instability along the edge of roads further away from the stream crossings? How many yards of material are at risk of breaking loose in the bigger storms? Then there is the issue of the chronic fine sediments coming off roads, due to road bed surface erosion. The sediment and the road runoff gets into the road ditches and then flows into either the many stream crossings throughout the watershed or into non-stream culverts along the road that have gullies below them, or into gullies off the road bed. All this generally sand-sized sediment is also getting into the streams and creeks.
So site prioritization allows us to address these questions and put plans together. In this case, the six phases of decommissioning are based on the landowner's wishes and on how many yards of sediment we'll keep out of the creek, how many miles of stream we might be restoring for access to fish (i.e. where there are fish barriers present at some of these crossings, like the Clark Fork), and our ranking of the urgency of treating a particular site, based on how active we interpret the erosion risks to be. We ask ourselves, is it going to be a very slow release over a very long time frame, or is there some potential for catastrophic release of sediment in a real wet winter? All this information goes into the thinking, working with the client or landowner, when we packaged the six phase restoration plan for Standley Creek watershed.
The reason we ended up with six packages is we know how the Cal Fish & Game program operates, and that the available funding for their grants program varies from year to year, and over the last several years their available money annually has been under $12 million dollars. We could have put a funding request into one big package, which might have totaled $3 million, but in all likelihood Fish and Game biologists would say "We're not going to put a quarter to a third of our budget into one project." So we sized the phases into the half million dollar range, so it's palatable to them. We know we've got real sediment problems here and elsewhere -- we're not having to wave our arms and put a big sell on for the projects. We bring the agency biologists and geologists out to these sites along abandoned roads and they say, "Oh, my God, look at that giant sink hole in the middle of that crossing that's winnowing material into the creek every year!" So it is understanding who your funders might be and what limits they might accept on the whole project. So that's why we have the six phases. The bottom line is the dollars, because if we build too big a package, we won't get the funding. One other issue in developing the treatment packages is a landowner's ability to contribute a cost share or matching dollars to receive grant funding. These days, typically a minimum 30% cost share is necessary in order to successfully get a project funded. Can the landowner contribute $900,000 or $150,000 over a 2 year period?
The approach that Campbell / Hawthorne took, before RFFI got involved, was we'll take care of the road upgrades, and since Fish & Game in their grants programs values road decommissioning on timber properties higher than they value road upgrading, TU and PWA would seek grant funding for the road decommissioning. However, if RFFI wants in the future to apply for grant funding to upgrade roads on their ownership, that would be fine and we would be glad to assist in developing those types of proposals also. We upgrade all kinds of roads on other properties with grant monies. However, we encourage RFFI to increase its cost share to 40%, to ensure the best chance of getting funding. So we're playing the game, so to speak, knowing what will rank higher in a competitive grant process. There's a lot that goes into it, and at a certain point it'd be nice for PWA to be inventorying another RFFI basin.
RFFI: In your point of view, has RFFI made a difference in how they are managing this plan?
DH: It's bound to make a difference, just because of the management direction. But I can't say at this point, because not much has happened that is different from the way Campbell or Hawthorne were going to approach it. It's really the same management team, but they're answering to a different owner. However, PWA is very excited to see all the high quality ridge line thinning and fire break construction done by RFFI, but like roads, the fire breaks will also require continued maintenance if they are to remain effective.
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