By Stephen Hamway / The Bulletin
BEND, Ore. — After decades of ranching and logging left a creek deep in the Ochoco National Forest less functional for the fish and other animals that live there, an interagency effort is underway to return it to a more natural state.
Since the end of July, Deep Creek, a tributary of the north fork of the Crooked River, has been the sight of an ambitious stream restoration project, which was spearheaded by the U.S. Forest Service and supported by a number of other public agencies, nonprofits and private companies.
Last week, workers used heavy equipment to re-grade channels that have become improperly aligned, and trucks hauled in downed ponderosa pine trees to add more complexity to the stream.
While the creek has long had an established population of redband trout, the overall goal, according to Juan Martinez, fisheries biologist for the Paulina Ranger District in the Ochoco National Forest, is to create a series of interconnected channels that are more suitable for all species that call the creek home.
“Nature can go back to taking its course,” Martinez said.
Deep Creek is perhaps best known as a genetic stronghold for redband trout, a subspecies of native rainbow trout that have adapted to the arid, desert conditions of Eastern Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Darek Staab, Upper Deschutes project manager for Trout Unlimited, said the Deep Creek population of redband trout is genetically distinct from other trout in the area and is better adapted to life in warmer water.
“In my mind, I see them as the fish of the future,” Staab said. “They’re going to have the genes and the adaptability, and the survival skills to be able to help as we move into more challenging times with the climate.”
However, years of degradation left the creek a more challenging place for trout and other animals to live. Rob Tanner, assistant forest hydrologist for the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, as well as the Crooked River National Grassland, said the area was once the site of logging camps, and loggers wanted to concentrate the creek’s flow so their camps and homesteads weren’t affected.
Consequently, the creek, which once flowed through a series of interconnected channels, was concentrated into a single straight channel near the edge of the basin. This arrangement, Tanner said, concentrated the water and caused the river to cut into the earth, gradually widening the channel and creating dramatic berms along the riverbanks.
Tim Porter, assistant district fish biologist for ODFW, said trout populations have remained relatively stable in recent years, but conditions haven’t allowed them to thrive. The Forest Service has classified the river as “functioning at risk” because of the previous degradation.
Staab said having a single wide channel with berms means less food and warmer water in the creek. Staab said water temperatures can approach 70 degrees during the summer, which nears the upper limits for even trout native to the creek. Martinez described the single wide channel as “monotonous” for fish and other animals, as it lacks the mix of fast- and slow-moving channels that the creek would have historically had. He added that this forces fish to work harder just to stay in one portion of the creek.
“The more diverse their habitat is, the less energy they spend on survival, and they more they spend on reproduction,” he said.
The first step of the restoration project is leveling out areas of the basin that have gotten too high or too low. Workers placed a cofferdam upstream from the project area, diverting water out of the main channel. From there, workers moved dirt from high ground in the basin into the channel. The goal, Tanner said, is to get the whole area within 2 feet of elevation, allowing the river to find different channels.
The workers will then add in creekside vegetation including willows and dogwood, and strategically place downed ponderosa pines in the river to give it more complexity. Ideally, Staab said the restoration will bring the entire water table up and allow the environment to recover naturally.
“By bringing the water table up and letting it interact with all of this diversity, it will create a really nice mix of different types of plants,” he said.
Tanner said it will take about 11 weeks to restore the 7-mile project area, though work could extend into the spring, depending on funding and weather.
Staab said one challenge with projects in the Ochoco National Forest is the relative lack of dedicated stewards compared to projects in the Deschutes basin. However, he said more than 50 people, from Forest Service officials to groups of volunteers who pull weeds in the basin, are involved in the restoration effort.
“I feel like the Ochocos can be forgotten,” Staab said. “The more time that I spend out here, the more special I realize that they are.”