A distant helicopter rises suddenly from a Coast Range forest above Dallas. A long load dangles beneath it, hanging from a cable. “It’s a bonus!” says Lucas Hunt, project manager for the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District and the Rickreall Watershed Council. “There are two logs in that load!”
Hunt has reason to be excited. This project will help control sedimentation that is slowly filling Mercer Reservoir, the City of Dallas’ drinking water source. To accomplish improvements on nearly five miles of upper Rickreall Creek, Hunt, 28, is coordinating activities and resources between nearly a dozen parties, including permitting agencies, granting organizations, and private and public timber management companies. Improving a creek is no small feat, as watershed council members all over Oregon can attest. Next summer, a mile downstream of where Hunt is watching this Vertol 107 helicopter move logs, the Rickreall Watershed Council will implement a similar project using an excavator. While the average log placement project includes 6-10 structures and takes a week, this project placed 522 logs in 34 structures over a 4 day period.
“It’s a massive project,” Hunt said of the latest installation from an SWCD program that only had $15k and 160 logs when he took it over in January 2013. Logs are positioned across or in the creek to slow waters and create pools that trap silt and gravel moving downstream. The structures serve a double purpose, providing habitat and spawning beds for native salmon. Log placements such as those in the Rickreall have been successful in mimicking what might have occurred if streams had not been scoured to bedrock and logged to the banks during the early 1900s. State and federal rules adopted in the 80s and 90s now regulate forest practices, and many timberland managers are willing to do even more than laws require for the waters that flow through their lands, said Hunt.
Although constructed log jams are often placed by excavators, this project required moving logs from a mature forest with no roads to a sensitive and equally inaccessible creek. A helicopter proved to be the perfect blend of speed, precision, and mobility required to protect both resources. In three or four minutes, the Vertol 107 moves large logs from a thinned forest across the valley to upper Rickreall Creek, where a waiting spotter directs the pilot. After a minute or two of subtle positioning, the helicopter dips briefly to gently set the logs in place without damaging the banks or streambed. The cable goes slack as it disconnects from the logs, and the helicopter roars away for another load.
Rickreall Creek has long been the subject of local improvements, both for the people of Polk County who depend on it for drinking and irrigation, and for fish. Local groups banded together to help slow sediment loosened by the 1987 Rockhouse Creek fire that left hills exposed above the reservoir. In 2003, the RWC worked with the City Arboretum to install 2 engineered log jams in Dallas City Park. In 2011, RWC helped a farmer replace a low water ford to improve fish passage. In 2013 the Polk SWCD used an excavator to install 160 logs in 8 structures in Upper Rickreall creek. This project, Hunt hopes, will continue to improve the waters that run from the Coast Range through Dallas and into the Willamette east of Rickreall.
Since Mercer Reservoir was built, returning salmon native to the 12,300-acre watershed have been trucked above the reservoir’s dam to maintain populations. As proof that the structures are forming pools and trapping sediment, the salmon appear to be thriving. Below the ridge, from a bridge near a structure built three years ago, Jason Dunkin, a watershed council member who grew up riding motorcycles and fishing in these hills, said he looks forward to the day when his council’s work will create a place for young fish to grow, and older ones to spawn. “See that,” he points to the tell-tale rolling wave in a shaded pool formed behind the structure. “There’s one already.”
It takes a village to restore a stream, and by “village” we mean the owners and agencies that manage the property surrounding the stream, and the groups that sponsored the project. In Rickreall Creek’s case, participants included lands managed by Hancock Forest Management, Mid-Valley Resources Inc., Weyerhaeuser Co., and public lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. About 10 percent of the funds for this $504,000 project came from the landowners and another 18 percent came from local or state organizations. The rest came from federal funds. Specific contributors not already mentioned include the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Rickreall Watershed Foundation, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, the City of Dallas and Polk County Community Development, among others.