Small but significant: restoring habitat in the Central Cascades

Small but significant: restoring habitat in the Central Cascades

ConservationNWAdmin / Nov 16, 2018 / Central Cascades, Habitat Restoration

A small, fragile meadow played a big role in our work restoring degraded watersheds in the Central Cascades this summer.

By Laurel Baum, Central cascades conservation associate

On any given day, if you travel up into Western Washington’s Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, you’ll come across a variety of people recreating on our public lands. From mushroom foragers, horseback riders and birders to off-road vehicle (ORV) riders and hunters, each are experiencing the forest in their own way, and each have an impact.

Left: this photo anchors the next—notice the two tall snags on either side of the live tree. Right: the same position as the photo on the left, after revegetation has been completed. A live, 15-20-ft tree was transplanted in the center of this decommissioned trail. Photo: Laurel Baum

And we share this public land with an ecosystem we all depend on. Thriving watersheds are intertwined with functioning forests. They can hold water in the form of snow or assist with flood control. Just like salmon, elk and fishers rely on healthy watersheds, so do downstream communities like Tacoma and Seattle. From water filtration to habitat, the health and function of watersheds is critical for all.

In our Central Cascades Watersheds Restoration (CCWR) program, we are restoring quality habitat so wildlife and people can thrive sustainably. This summer, my part in this program involved restoring some of the state’s most degraded watersheds between Mount Rainier and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

A map of our Central Cascades Watersheds Restoration program. This area is a hub for wildlife habitat connectivity in the Central Cascades. Cartography by Core GIS LLC. Click for larger version!

For this project, we worked near the Greenwater River—the headwaters of one of the nine watersheds we focus on in our CCWR program. Species like elk, fishers, bull trout, Chinook salmon and steelhead depend on this habitat, but are also threatened by the presence of unauthorized motorized trails.

It was my job to determine which areas we could start to restore. Through partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and a contract with a local company experienced in trail and road decommissioning, the results from this project were beyond my expectations.

Our priority was keeping motorized vehicles out of a small meadow in dire need of restoring. I am not against legal motorized recreation, and neither is Conservation Northwest, but “mudding” is an activity that should only be done in designated areas—otherwise, it can damage wildlife habitat, including sensitive, sub-alpine meadows.

In late September, we decommissioned 0.85 miles of unauthorized user-created trails. To restore this meadow, we installed a number of large boulders to discourage driving on undesignated roads, removed the tire ruts, spread erosion-control “woodstraw” to provide cover for the bare soil, and revegetated the damaged areas with locally-sourced plants.

Damage from unauthorized motorized-vehicle use in the sub-alpine meadow. Photo: Laurel Baum

Transplanting vegetation from adjacent areas provides a high rate of survival and growth, as well as diverse structure that will help filter water and reduce erosion. Within the next few weeks, we plan to decommission an additional 2.7 miles of unauthorized roads by placing boulders to block areas where vehicles leave authorized roads and enter valuable habitat.

We have also established two monitoring cameras to detect wildlife near the project area, and so far, we’ve documented elk, coyotes, black bear and a diversity of bird species and small mammals. Over the winter, we will add two more cameras to monitor the decommissioned meadow and trail system.

The first time I visited this small meadow, I saw a small herd of elk and their calves. By repairing this fragile habitat, I hope to see a rebound of biodiversity in the landscape—and hopefully the elk, too.

In the coming months, we plan to continue building community partnerships with groups including the Back Country Horsemen of Washington and the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association. Next spring, we hope to recruit and engage both community members and participants of these user groups in a few different ‘watershed clean-up days’.

A broad view of the barriers lining the authorized road. Photo: Laurel Baum

These events will enhance this project through authorized-trail maintenance, garbage cleanups near rivers and streams, spreading native seeds or erosion-control “woodstraw” in sensitive areas, and establishing signage to educate and raise awareness of designated motorized trails.

This work directly supports our CCWR program by improving watershed function in an important landscape for fish, wildlife and people. The restored trails will help reduce sedimentation into nearby streams and rivers, protecting the spawning grounds of endangered Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout. It will also improve the drinking water of downstream communities and reconnect habitat in an important wildlife corridor between the North and South Cascades.

Restoring this sub-alpine meadow and the surrounding watersheds would not be possible without the strong support of our partners: the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the National Forest Foundation, the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, the Bullitt Foundation and New Belgium Brewing.

Learn more about how we’re restoring habitat in vital wildlife corridors and benefitting the health of communities through our Central Cascades Watersheds Restoration program!