Mattole Restoration Council

Posted: Jul 1, 2005
Written by: 
Jane Braxton Little

Mattole River watershed, Humboldt and Mendocino counties, northern coast, California.

Objective: To restore the natural systems in the Mattole River watershed and maintain them for abundant health and productivity – especially the forests, fisheries, soils, and other native plant and animal communities – with the local human population sustainably integrated into them.

Participants: The Mattole Restoration Council (MRC) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. There are roughly 200 members, all of whom are watershed residents or landowners. In addition, over 100 persons living outside the watershed participate as non-voting members or Friends of the Mattole. MRC works with numerous public and private conservation organizations, and most closely with two local partner nonprofits: Mattole Salmon Group and Sanctuary Forest.

History: Before it empties into the Pacific Ocean, the Mattole River flows north along the King Range through a geological hotbed just inland from the Mattole Triple Junction, where three tectonic plates meet. In this landscape of active earthquakes, change is the constant. Before Europeans arrived, the Mattole and Sinkyone Indians occupied the remote watershed, lush with redwood and Douglas-fir forests, and streams teeming with salmon.

The influx of settlers in the 1850s brought cattle and a bustling agricultural community despite the isolated location 250 miles north of San Francisco. When loggers moved into the area after World War II, timber harvesting soon became the economic mainstay. Between 1950 and 1970 there were eight sawmills operating out of the town of Honeydew alone. The logging boom was in part the result of an ad valorem state tax on standing timber, an incentive to cut as much as possible as fast as possible. The activities left the landscape a wasteland of eroding hillsides and poorly planned roads. The 1960s and 1970s brought a wave of urban refugees who sought a lifestyle outside of the established economic systems - one that connected them with natural processes.

In the late 1970s, Mattole residents noticed a precipitous drop in the number of salmon returning from the Pacific to spawn. The residents formed the Salmon Group and, in 1978, launched a restoration effort aimed specifically at increasing salmon numbers by trapping adults, and capturing and incubating fertilized eggs. The volunteer rescuers knew sediment was contributing to salmon declines, but after a winter during which some 375 acres slid into the main stem of the Mattole, they realized the problem was bigger than the streams themselves. In 1983, a group of around 40 people gathered under the Council Madrone, the largest tree of its species in the world. By the end of the afternoon, the group had formed the Mattole Restoration Council, dedicated to restoration of the entire watershed.

Initially, MRC organized as an umbrella organization that supported and coordinated efforts among the Salmon Group, community service groups, local land trusts, a tree-planter cooperative and others. To create a watershed-based democracy, it formed as a membership organization open to all residents and landowners of the Mattole watershed.

While the work of trapping and incubating wild salmon continued, other MRC members launched a systematic study of the entire watershed. The findings were compiled in two publications, Elements of Recovery and Dynamics of Recovery, that assessed the watershed and planned projects to accelerate natural recovery.

MRC remained a loose-knit coalition without full-time staff until 1996, when it began a reorganization process that culminated in 2000 with the hiring of an executive director overseeing a paid staff, which would keep regular office hours.

Today the Council pursues its mission through five interrelated programs:

  • Good Roads Clear Creeks – storm-proofs roads, stabilizes stream banks, and upgrades culverts to reduce harmful instream sediment loads for the health of salmonids.
  • Wild and Working Lands -- restores the abundance and diversity of the Mattole’s terrestrial ecosystems in concert with sustainable livelihoods.
  • Youth Stewards -- fosters watershed “literacy” in local youth through a combination of classroom education and summer internships.
  • Resource Center – makes watershed-related library books and aerial photographs available at two locations for public use and education.
  • Watershed Information Systems – provide mapping and data management to support restoration, research, project planning, and local land stewardship.

  • Accomplishments: Since its launch in 2000, the Good Roads Clear Creeks program has treated 55% of watershed sediment sources such as culverts, poorly draining or abandoned roads, streambank failures, and landslides. Over 384,000 cubic yards of sediment has been stabilized, with an additional 997,000 cubic yards slated for treatment in the near future. With human-caused erosion producing an estimated 75% of the watershed’s sediment pollution, the Good Roads Clear Creeks program makes up a critical component of restoration in the Mattole. The program aims to complete all recommended treatments by 2015.

    The Council’s Wild and Working Lands program has also made great strides toward the recovery of the watershed through its many projects. One of the most important is the Program Timberland Environmental Impact Report (PTEIR), which aims to provide a lower-cost logging option for landowners provided they follow light-touch prescriptions. This project is an important step toward assuring that overharvesting mistakes from the past are not repeated. The plan greatly reduces overhead costs so that landowners do not need to cut as many trees in order to recover this initial cost. This should allow for human residents to gain a workable livelihood from the land while assuring that habitat is not adversely affected. The program is slated to perform its first harvest in 2010.

    MRC has a long track record of successful collaboration with local landowners and conservation groups as well as state and federal agencies. Along with its many on-the-ground projects, MRC has raised awareness of the plight of salmon within the Mattole watershed. In the process, MRC helped educate a generation of children who are environmentally aware and ready to improve land use practices wherever they live. MRC’s in-school education program includes classroom salmon rearing from eggs to release in the river, and also provides environmental career development for high school students.

    MRC’s 26-year history has yielded an impressive list of achievements. For example, in 2007 the group:

    • Saved more than 130,000 cubic yards of sediment from entering the watercourses of the Mattole watershed;
    • Improved 262 stream crossings;
    • Installed 127 improved, 2’-6’culverts;
    • Removed four fish migration barriers, upgrading two sites with bridges and two with pipe arches;
    • Planted 42,000 conifers (mostly Douglas-fir, with about 1,000 redwoods) along 25 miles of stream, to increase shade and cover, reduce water temperatures, and provide future inputs of large wood to aquatic systems;
    • Planted hundreds of riparian hardwood trees in key habitat areas;
    • Developed shaded fuel breaks and assisted scores of landowners with fire hazard reduction projects to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire throughout the Mattole watershed;
    • Began developing a Program Timberland Environmental Impact Report that will give Mattole timberland owners the opportunity to use pre-approved light-touch logging practices with lower planning and regulatory costs;
    • Pulled thousands of Scotch Broom and other invasive plants; 
    • Published a newsletter that informed thousands of readers about Mattole watershed issues;
    • Brought ecological curriculum to every K-12 student in the Mattole’s schools; and
    • Provided paid summer work in direct restoration activities to over a dozen local teens through the Nick’s Interns program;

     The Mattole makes its way through the mountains of Humboldt County
    Photo courtesy of the Mattole Restoration Council
    Challenges: Along with most of the rest of the world, MRC faces a big challenge from the dismal state of the larger economy. In 2009, California needs to address a recurring multi-billion dollar budget gap. With over 70% of MRC’s funding coming from the state government, this is of great concern.

    MRC is determined to keep funding flowing to the Mattole, where watershed restoration is far from complete. The watershed’s endangered salmon populations have been ranked by the state in the highest category for both threat of extinction and potential recovery. In 2009, MRC’s identified the top ten remaining on-the-ground challenges to the watershed as:

    • Sedimentation and temperature increases, as well as potential increases in nutrients, pesticides, and fuel run-off from expanding home sites and new residential development that impact the water quality and recognized beneficial uses of the Mattole River;
    • Decreasing per capita water supplies, resulting from the growing population and a lack of coordinated surface and groundwater management efforts, which are threatening instream flows and beneficial uses and further degrading aquatic habitats;
    • Threats to existing salmonid populations from decreased habitat quality and severely diminished overall numbers, which weaken their ability to respond to negative changes;
    • The continued spread of previously introduced invasive species, and the presence of new invasive species that threaten native communities and overall watershed health; 
    • Forests dominated by tightly stocked, second growth Douglas-fir and mixed hardwood species that lack resiliency to respond to significant ecological disturbances and that have little commercial value to encourage or enable sustainable timber management;
    • Population growth increasing the human “footprint” on the watershed;
    • Global climate change that could lead to significant alteration in precipitation and temperature regimes, species compositions, native forest and grassland communities, and the availability of water for household and agricultural use;
    • Increasing risk of catastrophic, stand replacing wildfire affecting a large area of the watershed, which would significantly impact all processes in the watershed;
    • Maintaining and improving widespread community involvement in watershed restoration and local government to help ensure positive watershed recovery and stewardship; and, as time goes on,
    • Maintaining the developing restoration infrastructure (erosion control structures, for example) and other restoration projects over the long-term so that they continue to provide their intended benefits to habitat and water quality.

    To learn more about the MRC and its goals, strategies, and benchmarks for addressing those ten challenges, see the Mattole Integrated Coastal Watershed Management Plan: Foresight 2020, available in 2009 at or contact:

    F. Jeremy Wheeler
    Executive Director
    Mattole Restoration Council
    P.O. Box 160
    Petrolia, CA 95558
    (707) 629-3514 - work
    (707) 499-5925 - cell 

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