Siuslaw Basin Partnership

Posted: May 2, 2005
Written by: 
Natalie Henry

Siuslaw River Basin, central Oregon coast

Objective: The Siuslaw Basin Partnership aims to restore the Siuslaw watershed while also providing economic revitalization and community education.

Participants: The Partnership is a decentralized, somewhat loose-knit group whose core partners are the Siuslaw National Forest; Siuslaw Watershed Council; Siuslaw Soil and Water Conservation District; and the Siuslaw Institute. Others who participate in specific projects include the Bureau of Land Management; Oregon Salmon Plan participants, including state and county agencies; Ecotrust; Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation and Development Area, Inc.; local schools; private landowners; and community volunteers.

History: Concern over the Siuslaw goes back as far as the 1980s, when residents began to worry about dwindling salmon populations. "One of the biggest impetuses and supports starting out was the fact that the Coho salmon was really in trouble," recalled the Forest Service’s Johan Hogervorst. John Rolland, who was at that time the local timber manager for Champion International, shared that concern, and contacted the Forest Service research station in Corvallis, OR, to explore the possibility of starting a restoration project in the Siuslaw Basin.

Charley Dewberry, a restoration ecologist, notes, "It was becoming clear by the early ‘80s that something was amiss, that the supposed restoration activities that were at that time being implemented on the landscape weren't successful. But it wasn't clear at that time what should be done." One major impediment was that scientists had not found an effective method to monitor changes in salmon populations in streams, so neither declines in the numbers of returning fish nor the effectiveness of restoration efforts could be determined.

The researchers at the Corvallis Forest Sciences Laboratory were looking for a coastal steam where they could test monitoring methodologies, and decided on Knowles Creek, a tributary of the lower Siuslaw River. There they developed what became known as the Hankin-Reeves whole-basin survey technique for conducting juvenile salmon counts. Dewberry, who participated as a diver in the project, says the new method gave people in the Siuslaw Basin a jumping off point. “It’s enabled us to really ask the questions: Where are the fish? How are they doing? and What's the trajectory over time?”

In 1992, formal collaboration to restore Knowles Creek coalesced among the Pacific Rivers Council, the Forest Service, and Champion International - whose lands are now owned by The Campbell Group. They chose Knowles Creek because much was known about it and it was a relatively small watershed with both federal and private landowners willing to work together.

Initial discussion focused mostly on the dynamics of sediment in the creek, the organic matter and food available for fish species, particularly salmon, and how water moves materials like logs and roots through the creek to create habitat. "Our idea was if you [addressed] all three of those things, you would probably see some improvement in the basins," Dewberry says. "Over time, I think that picture is right."

Meanwhile, industrial timber companies and small private landowners in the upper basin were also meeting to discuss restoration. As is the case with many Northwest forests, the upper basin of the Siuslaw is a checkerboard of ownership, with private interests owning half and a federal agency (in this case, the Bureau of Land Management) owning the other half. At first, even creating a map of the sub-basin was difficult because the participants' computers were not compatible, according to Johnny Sundstrom of the Siuslaw Institute. "So with scissors and paste and the new word 'watershed,' we began," he says.

The group targeted Deadwood Creek as its second project. Over time, the various groups and individuals interested in restoration in the Basin found each other and created strong relationships intent on restoring the watershed and its fish runs. Their hope was that the effort would help revitalize the fishing economy and provide sustainable timber harvests. As the group expanded and worked on Deadwood Creek and other projects, they discovered that each of the partners had different strengths and authorities that, when melded together, enabled the partnership to achieve restoration more quickly and effectively than any one partner could alone. Usually partners work in small groups to restore a specific area, but participants also meet together as part of the Siuslaw Watershed Council's technical team to set area restoration priorities and discuss progress on their various projects.

A prime example of collaboration in the Siuslaw Basin was the effort undertaken by the Siuslaw Soil and Water Conservation District, Siuslaw Watershed Council, Siuslaw National Forest, Siuslaw Institute, Cascade Pacific RC&D, National Forest Foundation, and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to restore Karnowsky Creek in the lower basin. Over time, the ambitious project attracted other partners, including Ecotrust, which provided funding from an EPA water quality grant, and local schools, which have helped with monitoring. With a budget of nearly $1 million from a wide variety of sources, “Karnowsky Creek is,” as the Forest Service’s Region 6 website notes, “now an international example of how lines that distinguish agencies, special interest groups, schools, non-profit organizations and local residents are being blurred to allow innovative restoration and education of a new generation.”

Accomplishments: In 2004 the Australia-based International Riverfoundation awarded the Siuslaw Basin Partnership its Thiess International River Prize, the first time a U.S. community group had been so honored. The prize recognizes the achievement of “outstanding results in river or catchment/watershed management and substantial progress towards sustainability.” Winning projects “need to show evidence of high levels of program delivery, inclusiveness, public accountability and innovation.”

“The symbol of our cooperation is basically the river prize we won…. That kind of shows how what we've done has value,” said Johnny Sundstrom in a Forest Service press release. “We've gotten a tremendous amount of actual, on-the-ground restoration done and we've been able to keep our organizations intact.”

The River Prize came with $100,000 in Australian dollars and an encouragement to “twin” with a country that was just beginning work on a similar watershed restoration issue. The Partnership chose Russia’s Sakhalin Island, where both the landscape and the salmon issues are similar to those of the Siuslaw. The Wild Salmon Center, a Portland, OR, group already working on salmon resource policy on the Pacific Rim, joined the Siuslaw Basin Partnership, bringing with them already-established relationships in Russia. Members of the Partnership initially met with Russian government and non-profit groups on Sakhalin Island to begin to form the Sakalin Restoration Partnership and plan the creation of comprehensive restoration projects to be carried out on pilot watersheds on the island. A Russian delegation traveled to Oregon later that year, and visits and information exchanges continue. In 2007, on-the-ground implementation began on Sakalin with a culvert replacement to enhance fish passage.

Meanwhile, back on Karnowsky Creek, the Forest Service purchased 100 acres from a local landowner to improve Coho salmon habitat. In the last century, settlers filled the natural stream channel and diverted it to a ditch, a common practice throughout the Oregon coast. The creek was moved back to the middle of the valley, restoring its meandering channel, wetlands, and floodplain function. Large woody debris was introduced to provide salmon habitat, and native trees, shrubs, and riparian vegetation were planted. In all, the project has restored more than three miles of stream channel and over 80 acres of surrounding land. Monitoring continues, and the Partnership hosts frequent tours of the area.

Restoration has occurred not only on public land, but on many private properties as well. The Deadwood Creek restoration, for instance, involves riparian areas owned by 18 different private individuals or entities.

Other accomplishments include a Native Plant and Tree Giveaway for people who own riparian land. The giveaway is enhanced by a funded vegetation release program offered to the landowners who plant trees. The program provides a three-year maintenance program to enable the new trees to get well established, a real bonus in a rainforest where vegetative competition is fierce.

The Siuslaw Watershed Restoration Initiative, in which Ecotrust is working with the Partnership, is a whole-basin initiative funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with significant focus on the estuary and its needs. Among the entities contracted to do the on-the-ground work are Roseburg Lumber Company, Georgia Pacific (which has also done a lot of the stewardship end-result contracting work on the Siuslaw National Forest), and the Campbell group.

Fish runs in the Siuslaw are up, but that's due mostly to good ocean conditions. True restoration will take up to a century, Dewberry says. "It took us 100 years to get into this mess. If we think we're gonna get out of it in less than 100 years, we're only fooling ourselves. It's going to take generations. At least there's a core group of people in this basin that have committed to this."

And then there's the general joy people find in their work in the Siuslaw Basin. Sundstrom notes that Forest Service employees in the Siuslaw often will pass up promotions because they would have to relocate. "They like to be here. That's an advantage," Sundstrom says.

Challenges/constraints: Funding is always a concern. Stewardship end result contracting has been a particularly useful tool in accomplishing work on the Siuslaw National Forest. It allows managers to sell timber from overstocked stands that need thinning for restoration purposes and use any “excess” receipts for other restoration efforts in the same forest. On the Siuslaw, open, facilitated groups of interested individuals and organizations from the local area work with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to review and recommend projects for funding. Partnership members are active participants in that process, which is not commonly used elsewhere by the BLM or Forest Service. “We in the Siuslaw have pushed stewardship contracting toward its full potential,” says Sundstrom. “The authority is like the leash, and we’re the puppy. We’re not going to break the leash, but we’re sure going to find the end of it.”

“The Siuslaw is known as the litigation-free, profit-making forest, and some of those profits are under the stewardship contracts,” Sundstrom said in a 2005 interview. The current depressed timber markets, however, mean fewer dollars now are available through stewardship contracting to support additional restoration work.

The Partnership has found that funding the on-the-ground work of restoration is not as difficult as it once was. The primary challenge is funding the “business” of conservation – paying the person who researches and writes the restoration grants, the person who answers the office phone, the phone bill itself, the office rent and utilities, the day-to-day management activities that can’t be charged to a particular restoration project. Those needed dollars are the hardest to find.

Finally, one of the major challenges the partners note is the time and energy it takes to attract other partners, to build trust and maintain relationships. "Even when you're not working together, you better stay in contact or else something will come up and put a wrench in the whole thing," Sundstrom says.

For more information see:

Siuslaw Watershed Council

Forest Service-Siuslaw Stewardship Projects

Pacific Coast Watershed Partnership-Siuslaw Summary

Karnowsky Creek Stream Restoration Project

Collaborative experiences in stewardship contracting on the Siuslaw National Forest
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