PROJECT UPDATE: BEAVER REINTRODUCTIONS ARE IN FULL SWING

CFC’s beaver reintroduction program has been operating since 2019 and to date has released 34 individuals into carefully studied and selected locations where the animals have the best possible chance to thrive. We, along with an ever-growing number of Tribes, agencies, and organizations, are using beaver reintroductions as a way to improve degraded habitats and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Watersheds are healthier and more resilient when beavers are present. Their dams slow waterways and create deep pools, expand and improve aquatic habitats, foster drought and flood resilience, and slow or even disrupt the spread of wildfires.

 

 

At the end of the third field season in my time working as Cascade Forest Conservancy’s (CFC) Communications Manager, I had an opportunity to participate in and document the final leg of a beaver’s relocation into the forest–something that has been high on my “CFC bucket list” since I joined the team. This was my first chance to meet the iconic, indomitable, habitat-engineering North American beaver (Castor canadensis) up close.

I was also getting time to chat with CFC’s Science & Stewardship Manager/beaver wrangler extraordinaire, Amanda Keasberry, on our drive north to the release site as our passenger, a 55-pound male beaver, napped on a bed of straw in a large animal carrier in the back of the Subaru. Amanda trapped him the day before, and he had spent the night at the Vancouver Trout Hatchery, where animals are safely housed and cared for between capture and release. We are grateful to have access to these facilities thanks to new partnerships with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and our friends at Columbia Springs, a local nonprofit working to inspire stewardship through education experiences designed to foster greater awareness of the natural world.

I found it difficult to fully comprehend how it was that animals like the one snoring softly behind me had once been the driver of continent-wide change. Not so long ago, Europe’s obsession with fashionable pelts motivated and financed westward colonization and resulted in the near-eradication of beavers from many parts of North America. The loss of this once-abundant keystone species profoundly altered the character, course, and quality of unfathomably vast areas of aquatic and riparian habitat across the continent. The systematic extermination of beavers was an ecological disaster on par with the destruction of the buffalo herds of the Great Plains.

 

 

As we drove, our conversations returned to CFC’s beaver program. Now a licensed trapper equipped with advice from a few generous mentors, Amanda had been busy, to say the least. Our passenger (the mate to a beaver caught earlier in the week) was the sixth animal Amanda had successfully trapped in only ten days. These two beavers, she explained, were being moved at the request of a local landowner. It seemed that after several years of peaceful co-existence, the situation with these beavers had become dangerous. The landowner had noticed that the animals had been chewing large trees on a slope directly above their home. Just days before traps were set, the beavers felled a tree onto the homeowner’s deck. “A lone beaver can take down a large tree in a single night,” Amanda explained.

Nearly all of the beavers CFC relocates come from similar situations. Although current population numbers are still well below their estimated abundance prior to European colonization, the species has managed a remarkable recovery. Unfortunately, they have been slow to return to some areas high in watersheds where their dam-building will have much-needed positive impacts. The species is, however, becoming widespread in some places where their tendency to down trees, flood fields or roads, or block culverts, inevitably leads to conflict with human neighbors. Even ardent lovers of wildlife sometimes feel forced to resort to lethal removal. Thankfully, Amanda’s trapping and relocation efforts provide an alternative. In many instances, beaver relocations represent the best outcome for all involved.

 

 

As we neared our destination and gained elevation, the rain picked up and the temperature dropped. We stopped along an unpaved forest road south of Mount St. Helens. After zipping up our coats, pulling up our hoods, and putting on gloves and waders, we carried our cargo (who was still somehow napping) into the brush before carefully lowering the carrier to the ground a few feet back from the bank of the waterway.

 

 

I could tell from the animal carrier-sized depression in the grass and the bits of straw on the ground that this was exactly the same site where this individual’s mate had been released just days before. Amanda noted that the willow trimmings she’d left on the bank had been eaten. This was a good sign, she said. She felt reasonably optimistic that our male’s mate was still nearby.

I expected our beaver would be eager to get away from us, his strange captors, as soon as the door to the carrier opened. I walked off a few yards to set up a camera and tripod and prepared to capture what I thought would be a quick burst of action. I hit record and gave Amanda a thumbs up. The door swung open, but to my surprise, nothing happened. This male was in no hurry to leave. It seemed he’d prefer to continue contentedly napping on his warm bed of straw.

Amanda coaxed him out by gently lifting the back of the carrier up a few inches. Still, even on the bank, the beaver was in no rush to go anywhere. But a minute later, his nose began to twitch–he seemed to smell something familiar. He zeroed in on remnants of the bedding left behind from the earlier release of his mate and started to perk up.

 

 

At last, the beaver was on his way. He lumbered a few feet down the bank before slipping silently into the dark, tannin-stained waters. Watching him go, I had thought he was slow and awkward on land. Once in the water, however, he moved gracefully and with purpose.

He swam for a short distance with his head and back above the surface, then arched his back and slipped out of sight beneath the water–becoming in that instant as much a part of this landscape as the grasses, willows, and western redcedars around us. I was moved to see him set off into this wild, remote, and unnamed waterway deep in the forest, and felt hopeful in the understanding that if all goes well, the presence of this beaver and his mate will improve this area and protect it from the worst impacts of climate change for years to come.

GATHERING NATIVE SEEDS FOR WILDFIRE RESTORATION IN THE SHADOW OF PAHTO (MT. ADAMS)

Halfway through a day of collecting seeds from native plant species from forests north of Trout Lake, volunteers and CFC staff enjoyed a break with a unique view. Pahto (Mt. Adams) towered above an expanse of charred snags arranged among a green carpet of wildflowers, shrubs, berries, and new saplings flourishing in the abundant sunlight.

 

 

 

This area burned in 2015’s Cougar Creek Fire. Yet, seven short years later, it is well on its way to recovery and is currently providing valuable early seral habitat (areas characterized by the early stages of forest re-growth which are important to many plant and animal species) to the larger forest ecosystem. In dry mixed-conifer stands, like those found throughout the eastern half of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, wildfires are a natural and even necessary part of forest ecology. But not every fire-impacted area in this part of the forest is doing as well as this one.

 

 

In some instances, climate change has led to more intense wildfires and shorter intervals between burns occurring in the same stands. These high-intensity, low-interval fires can deplete buried seedbanks and the forest’s ability to replenish and rely on the supply, making it difficult for some stands to recover naturally. Not far from where we were enjoying our break another fire-impacted area is fairing much differently. The triple burn area was affected by three fires in a short period of time–2008’s Cold Spring Fire, 2012’s Cascade Creek Fire, and the 2015 Cold Creek Fire. This area is now struggling to recover, so CFC’s staff, the US Forest Service, and volunteers are stepping in to lend a hand through what could be called “assisted migration” of vegetation from healthy stands to areas that have been slow to regrow.

 

 

For the past 6 years, we have been working to gather seeds from native plant species like beaked hazelnut, wax currant, snowberry, western columbine, pearly everlasting, ocean spray, lupine, wild roses, Oregon sunshine (aka wooly sunflower), and many others. We collect these materials from forests closely resembling the triple burn area in species composition and elevation. The collected seeds are then being used to revegetate the area where seedbanks have been exhausted.

 

Guided by Evan Olson, a botanist for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, volunteers learned how to identify, collect, and label seeds from targeted species, and spent a beautiful sunny Saturday gathering among the understory.

 

 

Leading up to the trip, volunteers were given several documents to get a chance to familiarize themselves with the history of the three fires that created the triple burn area and a resource guide of native plant species that we would be encountering in the field. At each site we visited, volunteers and staff split into groups and dispersed throughout the area to find the seeds. Some worked as generalists collecting any species listed in the pre-trip materials they came across. Others specialized in finding one or two species.

 

At the end of the day, we gathered around Evan’s Forest Service pickup and handed over the last of our haul to be sorted, stored, and then used in upcoming revegetation efforts, including our upcoming and final volunteer trip of the year where many of the same seeds gathered will be spread throughout the triple burn area.

 

 

“This is vital work,” Evan explained as he thanked the volunteers for their efforts. Climate change may be altering the ecology of wildfire and the landscape’s ability to regenerate after a burn, but helpful interventions like these can make a long-lasting difference. 

PROJECT UPDATE: INDEPENDENT VOLUNTEERS HAVE SPENT THE SUMMER PEAKING FOR PIKA

At the beginning of June, CFC hosted a virtual training session to teach volunteers how to survey for pika in the talus slope areas of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Pika survey efforts have been going on for years in the Columbia Gorge, Mt. Rainier, and other locations within the Cascades, but there’s a gap in pika population data in the Gifford Pinchot. 

 

Pika near Takh Takh Meadow by Susan Saul

 

Volunteers could go to sites where pika have previously been observed to conduct sitting surveys, or volunteers could send back reports if they happened to cross paths with a pika when out on a hike. Pika can be hard to spot as they are often well camouflaged by the rocks they inhabit, but wait long enough and they start to scurry around and make calls to the other pika nearby. So far this year, volunteers have conducted 30 sitting surveys and have had 34 opportunistic sightings.

 

Pika photographed at Goat Ridge Lookout by Jennifer Travers

 

These new pika sightings will allow us to have more sites to complete the sitting surveys next year. Most of our projects are not possible without the help of volunteers, and that is especially the case for the pika surveys. CFC sends a HUGE thank you to all the volunteers that have participated and are continuing to participate in the first year of these surveys! 

 

Pika photographed ay McClellan Viewpoint by Steider Studios

 

There’s still time to get involved! If you want to do a sitting survey, please contact amanda@cascadeforest.org so she can send you all the information you need to get started.

 

Pika photographed above Miller Creek by Mackenna Milosevich

 

If you’re ever out on a hike and come across a pika, feel free to share that information with us here.

READ CFC’S 2021 ANNUAL REPORT

Instead of lots of statistics and charts, this year’s annual report is a collection of narratives told by our staff about just a few of the advocacy, conservation, and restoration successes of last year. Together, these stories demonstrate how CFC continued to achieve positive impacts for the forests, rivers, wildlife, and communities throughout the southern Washington Cascades in 2021, thanks to the generous support of our donors and the hard work of our volunteers.

Enjoy!

Click here to download a PDF or read the report below

THE INSTREAM WOOD BANK NETWORK IS FORGING PARTNERSHIPS TO SUPPORT FISH RECOVERY

It’s been a busy season for the Instream Wood Bank Network. We have a lot of plans in the works and a few big movements of wood now under our belt.

 

THE INSTREAM WOOD BANK NETWORK

 

Across the Pacific Northwest, many fish populations are struggling due to compounding challenges, including degraded habitats lacking in complexity. Streamside logging and efforts to straighten channels and clear obstacles resulted in a massive reduction of instream wood—a habitat feature that helps support fish throughout their life cycles by slowing flows, creating shallow gravel beds and deep pools, and cooling water temperatures.

In response, many agencies, Tribes, and restoration professionals are reintroducing woody debris and logjams into aquatic systems. Aquatic ecosystems are healthier—and more resilient to the impacts of climate change—when these habitat features are restored. However, some of our partners often face difficulties sourcing the wood needed for restoration projects due to expense or availability. 

These are the problems the Instream Wood Bank Network was created to address. 

 

 

The innovative project is a highly collaborative program that functions as a set of partnerships to supply wood for restoration projects and create a better use for trees that would otherwise become wood chips, cut for firewood, or burned on-site. We work with a wide variety of landowners, local contractors and haulers, and agencies to source and haul materials. Wood is then provided to complement and advance the instream wood placement projects being managed by various restoration partners, including the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group, Friends of East Fork Lewis River, the U.S. Forest Service, and others. Having extra or less expensive wood materials for their projects allows these groups to expand their impact. In short, the Wood Bank allows our restoration partners to do more work for less money and represents an encouraging win-win for rural economies and communities, conservationists, and (of course) fish.

 

AN EXPANDING IMPACT

 

The Instream Wood Bank Network is still a relatively new endeavor, but it’s already producing major results. So far this year, we’ve moved approximately 360 trees and delivered them to partner organizations who will be using them to restore habitat for salmon and a variety of other wildlife. We are also using some of these trees for one of our own habitat improvement projects later this year, on a tributary of the South Fork Toutle River where we will be employing low-tech, process based methods to restore aquatic and riparian health along a waterway that flows through degraded timberlands. 

 

A person is sitting with a notepad beside a river flowing in a forested area
CFC staff and partners on a site visit to the South Fork Toutle River watershed in 2020

 

Earlier this spring, we facilitated the transfer of 50 Douglas firs that were laying on the ground in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic area that had been pushed over as part of a road realignment project and were slated to become firewood. These trees had root wads attached and would make perfect instream habitat trees for fish. We contacted the Forest Service just in time and instead arranged for the transfer of these trees to support the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s upcoming instream work on Wildboy Creek. 

The logistics of transferring wood, especially salvaged wood of this sort, are complex and require working through a number of agency steps and with a number of different contractors in the stacking and hauling of logs. The end results will be worth the effort. The Tribe will be removing a dam and installing instream wood. The project will dramatically improve habitat potential and restore fish passage to upstream reaches of this currently fragmented waterway. The addition of instream wood will also benefit the area as it recovers from the ground and waterway disturbance caused by the removal work, helping restore health to the waterway.

 

 

Recently, the Wood Bank also successfully sourced 284 logs for our partners at Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group. These were sourced from a Department of Natural Resources location where trees are grown for seed production. Due to their growth patterns, these trees are not able to be sold as lumber and were going to be chipped up for pulp. We thought a better use for these trees would be building fish habitat in the Coweeman River and various tributaries of the South Fork Toutle. So we worked with the logger and the landowner and coordinated this movement of wood. Not only are these salvaged logs finding a new home where they are able to serve as habitat, but we were also able to supply them to our partner for around half of what they would have otherwise paid to acquire trees from an intact forest. 

As the impact of the Wood Bank Network grows, we are looking ahead and creating new opportunities to make downed trees available for river restoration projects. In addition to ongoing conversations with timberland owners, such as Port Blakely and Weyerhaeuser, we are looking across the region for trees being cut for urban development. 

 

 

As one can imagine, the logistics involved in building new partnerships and coordinating successful wood movements are demanding. This is a complex endeavor that is bringing people together from across a wide range of interests and ideologies. It seems to be that a project designed to restore rivers through cooperation, partnership, and the creation of economic opportunities, is something we can all get behind.

MY FIRST FIELD TRIP WITH CASCADE FOREST CONSERVANCY

Two weeks ago, I participated in my first project in the field with CFC staff and volunteers in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Beavers were previously introduced to specific sites, and our goal was to revisit these locations to identify any signs of beaver habitation and survival. As a native southside Chicagoan who has never visited the Pacific Northwest, I was thrilled to begin this new experience while exploring and camping in the woods. Day one started with friendly volunteers meeting each other and sorting into four groups. Each group had a designated path to a meadow, described by Amanda (CFC’s Science and Stewardship Manager) as a serene landscape that would be worth our journey. With an iPad to navigate in hand, tools for removing invasive species we happened to come across, oversized boots, and a few squished sandwiches in my backpack, I eagerly followed my group into the woods for a new adventure.

 

 

Leading up to this weekend trip, I pictured myself hiking on clear trails. Those expectations were quickly dashed after beginning our trek, for the woods were much denser than our group anticipated. I embraced the challenge of intense bushwacking, though, and powered through a series of branches and shrubs with my group for the sake of beaver evidence. We found a few gnawed sticks with teeth marks and proceeded to photograph them and map our locations. I found a few sticks myself, but they were just beetle larvae patterns carved into the wood. We continued our journey throughout the day, wading through the river and gazing at amazingly tall trees, only to ultimately decide to turn back in fear of not returning in time.

 

 

Unfortunately, my group and two others did not reach the beautifully acclaimed meadows, though I may still get a chance to see it if we return to release beaver later in the summer. Although we never reached our destination, I enjoyed the trek very much. My group spent the remaining time identifying and removing invasive species in a nearby parking lot until the other groups returned, ensuring their seeds couldn’t spread to other areas of the forest by attaching to hikers, pets, or vehicles. I didn’t even need to use my handy plant identification app, Seek, because my group members were incredibly skilled in determining all plant species within seconds of looking at one. I aspire to be at their expertise one day.

We visited a secret waterfall before heading to our campsite. It was absolutely magnificent- a rainbow shined at the bottom of the falls over glistening mossy rocks. The cliffside was full of beautiful cascades and Douglas firs at various levels. Since this was my first waterfall, my expectations are now unrealistically high, as I’m sure I will never achieve such a state of awe again. When we arrived at our campsite afterward, we all quickly set up our tents and began cooking elaborate dinners. Well, the volunteers did. I struggled to set up my tent, even with Amanda’s help, then savored a delicious meal of smushed berries and my last sandwich. The entire group continued for a few hours, laughing and talking around the campfire, others visiting a nearby lake. I, however, promptly fell asleep from pure exhaustion. 

 

 

Day two of our adventure placed us near a set of frog ponds southwest of Mount St. Helens. Since this area was reasonably open compared to yesterday, all participants ventured together naturally because we could see one another no matter where we roamed. While searching for beaver evidence, volunteers clustered around a fallen tree that looked like a potential living space for beaver. Smaller ponds and channels surrounded the fallen tree, but nothing too deep that my oversized boots could not handle. I noticed a log slightly concealed by grass that offered itself as a shortcut to the rest of the volunteers. With only shallow creeks and channels resting nearby, I assumed there was no risk and began walking across the log. Having traveled across multiple logs the day before, I had practically become an overnight professional in hiking with supreme balance.

 

 

I was a fool whose enthusiasm had led me to commit a grave mistake. Within two seconds of stepping of walking, I slipped and fell straight into a hidden pond, submerging my body to my hips. Luckily I had stashed my iPad and phone in my backpack moments before, so all was not lost. The CFC staff said this was a rite of passage; my soaked pants begged to differ. I shuffled around in damp clothes for the rest of the day, but my spirit remained unbroken. We found some older signs of beaver that indicated their presence this past winter, but nothing extremely recent. We dedicated the rest of our day traversing down a creek, a fun excursion that led us down a winding stream with several spots for possible future beaver relocations.

 

 

As the trip wrapped up and we returned from the ponds, I said my goodbyes to my new friends and thanked those who let me dry my wet clothes on the hoods of their cars. I felt very happy to have contributed to fieldwork that will inform future beaver reintroduction locations and practices in upcoming years. Overall, I loved spending my weekend in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest with CFC, and I look forward to creating many more memories on future trips throughout the summer.

PROJECT UPDATE: SEARCHING FOR THE ENIGMATIC PACIFIC LAMPREY

At the end of June, CFC staff and volunteers visited two South Fork Toutle River tributaries to survey for the presence or absence of lamprey–an ancient and relatively understudied keystone species.

Excellent reporting in an article by Brian Oaster, an award-winning journalist, staff writer at High Country News, and member of the Choctaw Nation, explains the importance of the species and the dire situation they are facing. Oyster’s reporting was the source of many facts in this blog.  

The Pacific lamprey is an ancient species of jawless fish with a cartilage skeleton, an eel-like body, and an oval sucker mouth filled with an array of hooked teeth used to attach and parasitically feed on hosts. They have survived five mass extinctions, remained unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, and have been around for more than 400 million years. But man-made impacts may be pushing this species toward their decline.

 

 

Many lamprey runs have disappeared, and some fear that as much as 90% of their former population has been wiped out by habitat degradation and dams. Until recently, most Western scientists ignored the species. However, many tribes have been sounding the alarm over declining Pacific lamprey populations and distribution throughout the Pacific region for decades. 

Lamprey is a first food used for sustenance and medicine. Despite being smaller than salmon, a lamprey contains more than four times the omega-3 fatty acids and calories than the more famous fish. In addition to being a culturally important and super nutritious food source, Pacific lamprey are a keystone species, meaning their decline can drastically change entire ecosystems.

 

 

AN UNDERSTUDIED AND IMPERILLED KEYSTONE SPECIES

 

Pacific lamprey are anadromous fish, meaning they are born inland, migrate to sea, and eventually return to freshwater to spawn. After mating, the adults die. In Oyster’s article, Yurok tribal member and fisheries biologist Keith Parker explains that prior to colonial settlement, migrating “Pacific lamprey were the largest biomass of anything in the river–not just fish, but of anything.” Their bodies were a yearly transfer of marine nutrients to inland watersheds on a staggeringly massive scale. The trees are full of nutrients from the sea carried inland in the bodies of countless generations of lamprey. While they are weaker swimmers than salmon and steelhead, Pacific lamprey are capable of reaching certain headwaters that are inaccessible to those species by using their sucker mouths to climb waterfalls!

 

Volunteers and staff on their way to survey sites

 

Their young also serve critical ecological functions. Before developing into an adult, a larval lamprey spends 2-7 years in freshwater. They are filter feeders that bury themselves underneath streambeds, recycling nutrients, aerating water, and providing meals to larger fish.         

 

COLLABORATING WITH THE COMMUNITY TO PROTECT PACIFIC LAMPREY

 

A number of tribes have been working to protect the species through translocations, habitat restoration, artificial propagation, and by petitioning the government to take action. After the Pacific lamprey was denied listing for protection through the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2004, tribes, government agencies, and non-profits knew they needed to respond and collaborated to create the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative (PLCI). 

Cascade Forest Conservancy has joined the PLCI and received funding through the Bonneville Power Association to explore several creeks in SW Washington to see if there are populations currently existing in these waterways. Last year we surveyed the Wind River, Panther Creek, and Pete Gulch using environmental DNA, a less-invasive surveying technique that allows scientists to test water samples for the presence or absence of a targeted species. We found that the distribution of Pacific lamprey in the Wind River goes 7.5 miles higher than what was previously reported by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016!

 

Volunteers searching for larval lamprey in stream sediment

 

This year’s area of focus was the South Fork Toutle River. A couple of weeks ago, we headed out on a warm, sunny Saturday morning with 12 volunteers to walk along the reaches of Stump Creek in search of Pacific lamprey. We conducted various surveys to look for lamprey at their various life stages. Pacific lamprey spawn in the summer, so we made sure to keep an eye out for lamprey redds (gravel beds that lamprey and other fish build to lay and fertilize eggs). 

Larval lamprey spend years in freshwater buried beneath fine sediments, so we also used a survey technique to dig into the sediment and carefully sift through it to (hopefully) uncover lamprey. We also took several environmental DNA samples that will determine Pacific lamprey’s presence within Stump Creek. In addition to all the lamprey surveys, we documented other fish species we saw, beaver activity, and type 1 habitat (fine sediments, shady, slow-moving water), which is the preferred habitat of larval lamprey.

With so many volunteers, we could split into groups and cover a large portion of the creek. At the end of the first day, the groups compared notes. We had not found any lamprey redds or larval lamprey. However, we identified a decent amount of type 1 habitat, which led us to wonder what was missing.

 

LAMPREY AT LAST!

 

The next day we headed to another South Fork Toutle tributary–a location our partners at Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group were particularly curious about the existence or lack of lamprey populations. This creek is a likely site for future restoration efforts, so we wanted to learn what populations may be there because that data can inform the design of the restoration project.

Once we arrived to the creek, I found an easy way down to the water near a bridge and I suggested we start there. As we got closer to the water, we saw numerous patches of type 1 habitat, so the volunteers grabbed the larval lamprey sampling gear and started to dig. Excitement erupted when someone found a 1-inch long wiggly creature, but I, unfortunately, had to burst their bubble by revealing that we were looking at a horsefly larva. 

 

 

Once again, volunteers broke into groups to search in different sections of the stream. One volunteer pointed out a small patch of really fine and silty sediment on the opposite side of the bank. I headed over with her, and as I stuck the sampling base into the sediment, I saw a glimpse of a silvery body. Because we had seen fish all day, I assumed this was the same and exclaimed–“I caught a fish!”. Others said, “No, no, no, I think that’s a lamprey!” 

 

Success at last! Staff and volunteers gathered around to see a lamprey

 

Everyone held their breath as I scooped the dip net to try to catch our mystery specimen. As I dumped the contents of the dip net into a tray, we saw a 7-inch, dark blue, iridescent eel-shaped creature, equipped with a suction mouth and seven breathing holes–it was none other than our elusive lamprey. Excitement erupted again, even louder as all the volunteers ran over to get a glimpse of our ancient friend. We continued scoping out more sediment and uncovered several other lampreys of various sizes. Data was collected, photos were taken, and we sent the lamprey back into the stream so they could dig back down into the comfort of the fine sediments. After this discovery, we continued upstream with huge smiles, determined to find more lamprey. We spent several more hours digging and uncovering more larval lamprey.

 

 

USING DATA TO GUIDE RESTORATION

 

Though finding our target species during our second day of surveys was more exciting, our failure to find lamprey and optimal habitat in Stump Creek has provided data that is equally important to our work. Together, the information gathered over two years at various sites tells a story that backs up the need for restoration. Once we saw where lamprey were found on the second day, in a particular silty fine sediment, we realized that the less-fine sediments in Stump Creek may not be currently capable of providing the exact habitat features that lamprey need. 

Later this year, CFC will be installing several wood structures into the stream to improve the aquatic and riparian habitat at Stump Creek. Introducing more woody debris will help slow the water, create deep pools, retain fine sediments, and keep water in the system for longer–all features that will benefit Pacific lamprey, salmonids, beaver, and more! 

A POSITIVE STEP FORWARD FOR CLIMATE-SMART FOREST MANAGEMENT

President Biden’s Earth Day Executive Order has real potential to be the start of an important shift in the way forests on federal lands (and beyond) are managed. In the fact sheet provided by the Administration, concerns about climate are front and center. The Order recognizes that forests serve vital functions helping to slow the acceleration of climate change and acknowledges the outsized impact of mature and old-growth forests in capturing and storing carbon. 

Biden’s Order directs federal agencies to create a consistent definition for old-growth forests that accounts for regional and ecological variation and to complete an inventory of mature and old-growth forests on federal land. This inventory will be made available to the public and could serve as a useful tool for conservationists and scientists across the nation.

 

The Executive Order also aims to aid rural economies by supporting community-led efforts to create and sustain jobs in the outdoor recreation and sustainable forest products industries, requires agency-specific reforestation targets, and calls for expanded seed collection projects.

Additionally, the Earth Day Order is directing the government to study and evaluate the vital functions that forest ecosystems provide beyond producing extractable resources. Calculating the monetary value of the many benefits these places provide to society (such as healthy populations of pollinating insects, clean air and water, and carbon sequestration) is a key component in re-imagining how we think about resource management.

Language in the Administration’s fact sheet also recognizes the importance of nature-based solutions to habitat restoration and wildfire risk mitigation. We’re encouraged that Biden’s Order calls for a report on nature-based solutions (projects like CFC’s work installing beaver dam analogs) to slow climate change and enhance habitat resilience.

 

These are all positive steps forward. But what ultimately results from this Order will depend on us. While the Order itself does not prohibit or offer updated guidelines related to logging, it does direct federal agencies to analyze threats from wildfire and other climate impacts facing the mature and old-growth forests they inventory, and to develop new policies to “institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies.”

These new forest management policies aimed at safeguarding mature and old-growth forests will be created through a process “with robust opportunity for public comment.” That means that scientists, conservationists, organizations like CFC, and people like you who care for the future of our forest and environment will all have a role in shaping the policies that will guide how our public resources are used and stewarded for years to come.

Public lands belong to all of us and how they are managed will have an impact on all of our lives, for better or worse. Biden’s Order is an important first step in a process that is only just getting started. It represents an exciting opportunity to work together, speak up, and make a lasting positive difference for our climate, our forests, and our communities.

CAUGHT IN THE MATRIX: RETHINKING THE NORTHWEST FOREST PLAN

The laws and guidelines regulating the way public lands are managed have come a long way, but the challenges we face today require an updated approach.

 The Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was implemented almost thirty years ago. The plan–a series of federal policies and guidelines governing land uses within federally managed areas of the Pacific Northwest–was adopted at the height of the confrontation between environmentalists and the timber industry around over-harvesting practices that decimated old-growth forests in the 1980s and early 90s. The plan was shaped by hundreds of scientists from a wide range of fields of expertise. It was designed for the purpose of preserving the health of entire ecosystems, including the people that rely on our forests, rather than focusing solely on the preservation of individual threatened or endangered species.

 

Learn more about the Northwest Forest Plan in Episode 5 of the OPB Podcast: Timber Wars

 

The NWFP was an important and ground-breaking piece of federal policy. When it was adopted in 1994, it created new guidelines for federal agencies and fundamentally changed the nation’s approach to resource management on public land for the better. But when the policy was adopted, our understanding of climate change was just beginning to emerge and was not yet a factor in shaping policy decisions. 

Now, scientists, policymakers, and the public all have a better understanding of the urgent need to slow and mitigate climate impacts, as well as the role that forests in the Pacific Northwest play in capturing carbon and slowing global climate change. In light of these factors, CFC and many leading scientists believe our national forest land management policies could use some updating.

 

HOW ARE FEDERAL LANDS CURRENTLY MANAGED?

 

Part of the way the Northwest Forest Plan set new guidelines for resource management was the creation of several different land allocation designations that set management objectives for specific areas. The goal was to balance competing land use objectives and to protect the long-term health of forests, wildlife, and waterways.

Since the NWFP was adopted, timber harvests have mainly been proposed and discussed in areas within four of these designations: 

 

Late-Successional Reserves (LSR)

 

Late-Successional Reserves are areas set aside to support or advance old-growth characteristics. It should be noted that this old-growth-focused management objective still allows some logging (mostly thinning) and this has been a source of conflict and disagreement through the years. 

 

Riparian Reserves

 

Under the NWFP, forest management in Riparian Reserves (habitat areas near streams and rivers) is supposed to support riparian health, but how one interprets this goal varies and management can also include thinning.

 

 

Adaptive Management Areas 

 

Compared to other designations, Adaptive Management Areas are smaller and intended to allow the US Forest Service a degree of experimentation with management interpretations. These are places where the impacts of restoration and harvest techniques are tested, implemented, and measured. But, of late, we have seen a rise in fairly intensive logging projects in these areas, mostly under the stated goal of bringing back huckleberry picking areas. 

 

Matrix

 

Matrix lands were intended to meet multiple objectives within the landscape, including the production of commercial yields of wood, diversification of habitat areas, and corridors between dispersed mature and old-growth habitat areas. The vast majority of timber harvest in national forests occurs on Matrix land. Unfortunately, that has led some to misinterpret the management objective of Matrix lands as places solely intended for free-for-all timber production.

 

RETHINKING THE MATRIX

 

In our Climate Resilience Guidebook, published in 2017, we outlined land management recommendations and restoration strategies that can be implemented at the local level to build resilience and limit the impacts of climate change. The Guidebook looked into how the different designations created by the NWFP relate to the conservation of species and habitats.

As we prepare to publish a new edition of the Guidebook, we are digging deeper into the role of these designations, especially that of Matrix lands. It’s vital to do that work now. The NWFP will be undergoing a long-anticipated update in the coming years, and scientists and conservationists will have opportunities to influence the new guidelines and objectives. We are interested in exploring how our knowledge of climate change and carbon sequestration may influence how we, collectively, may want to view the role of Matrix lands in national forests.

There are many questions that require investigation. Is it time for management conversations to more directly consider how carbon sequestration in Matrix lands can influence future climate impacts? Since drought and fires impact the entire forest, do we need to update our thinking about the management goals of Matrix lands to include their potential value as habitat refugia (important places where plant or animal populations can survive periods of unfavorable conditions), even if these Matrix lands make imperfect substitutes for areas designated as LSRs or Wilderness?  

A selection of images from CFC’s wildlife cameras taken on Matrix lands

 

The new edition of the Guidebook will help elucidate answers to these questions and more. It will do so by synthesizing our knowledge from on-the-ground experience, insights from the latest scientific research, and data from mapping layers. All of this will allow CFC to gain a better idea of what changes to the Northwest Forest Plan may be needed to sustainably manage public resources while preserving ecosystem health and biodiversity in a changing world. 

Locally, the insights we gain will impact our recommendations and priorities related to our work discussing and negotiating timber sales in forest collaboratives and our work, generally, with federal and state agencies. We will also use these insights to influence the Gifford Pinchot National Forest Plan and the Mount St. Helens Comprehensive Management Plan, two federal planning documents that will be updated after the NWFP and that will both be critically important to how our local federal lands are managed well into the future.

It’s time to revisit how we think about Matrix lands. We aim to publish a set of recommendations for this revision process and an outline of strategies we can all push forward through the various levels of conversation and public involvement, from the individual on up to the national stage.

KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED FOR PIKA! A NEW INDEPENDENT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY

Which local high-altitude specialist is the size of a potato, has a teddy-bear face and large round ears, enjoys picking wildflowers, and screams “EEEEEE” like a squeaky plush toy? You guessed it–the American pika.

Pika are the smallest members of the lagomorph (rabbit) family. They are covered in a thick tan, brown, and black coat that acts as camouflage among the rocks and allows them to stay warm in the subalpine and alpine terrains they typically inhabit. Rock faces, rock slides, talus slopes, and cliffs are their preferred home.

 

An example of talus slope (pika habitat) in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest
An example of talus slope (pika habitat) in the Indian Heaven Wilderness within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest

It’s easy to understand why the American pika is a favorite of many hikers in the western United States and Canada. But these undeniably adorable animals are in trouble.

Pika are sensitive to changes in climatic conditions. The summer months are an important time for collecting grasses and wildflowers, which are then dried into distinctive hay piles that will sustain the pika through the alpine winter. But foraging in high temperatures can be deadly for pikas. They have a temperature threshold of 78 degrees Fahrenheit and will not survive if they are exposed to high temperatures for too long. On hot days, pika are forced to limit the time they spend foraging to avoid over-exposure. The warmer temperatures brought about by climate change are making it more difficult for pika to gather enough food for the winter.

An American Pika perched on a rock
American pika photographed by supporter and volunteer, Michael Sulis

These changes are causing pika to move to even higher elevations. But many populations will soon find that they cannot go any higher. 

In many places, pika populations are declining. Gathering more data about current numbers and population trends is essential to understand what kinds of protections this species may need. Additionally, the ways in which pika respond to changes in the climate make them the perfect climate indicator species. Their climate sensitivity helps scientists infer the conditions in a particular habitat. That’s why Cascade Forest Conservancy has decided to join the Cascades Pika Watch collaboration and why we are launching a new program–a way for volunteers to make a difference for pika, independently and on their own schedules! 

Cascades Pika Watch is a collaboration between the Oregon Zoo and the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. They have led highly successful projects counting and studying pika for many years in the Columbia Gorge (the Columbia Gorge pikas live at lower elevations than anywhere in the United States!) and in the North Cascades. Unfortunately, there is currently a gap in pika data between those two project areas. Cascade Forest Conservancy will lead the efforts in southwest Washington to expand the study across a larger geographic area.

Watch Oregon Field Guide’s segment about Cascade Pika Watch and the pika in the Columbia Gorge

Help from volunteers will be critical for Cascade Forest Conservancy’s efforts to study pika in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Unlike CFC’s group trips, pika research offers volunteers the chance to make an impact while setting their own schedule and pace! No experience is necessary and any level of participation will help us fill in the data gaps about this charismatic climate change indicator species!

Pikas are a natural fit for independent citizen science. They are easily identifiable, are found in beautiful places, and offer invaluable information about environmental changes. We will be hosting volunteer training on June 11th. You can attend in person at our office in Vancouver or by joining our livestream (registration will open in February). During the training, we will go over:

  • Pika and habitat identification
  • Opportunistic observations vs. sitting surveys
  • Equipment checklist
  • Safety procedures
  • Volunteer guidelines 

Whether you’re going on a hike in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to opportunistically observe pika, or you want to claim a survey spot within the forest to look and listen for pika (the sitting survey) this independent volunteer opportunity is just for you! 

If you have any recent pika observations that you’d like to share or if you want to get started before June, please email Amanda Keasberry, CFC’s Science and Stewardship Manager, at amanda(at)cascadeforest.org.