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Alex Schwartz
Herald & News/Report for America

As the Bootleg Fire raged through the Sprague River watershed in mid-July, Joe Garrett and Nate Ganong feared the old ranch they had purchased last fall would burn up before they had the chance to transform it into the wildlife preserve they both envisioned. Winds reaching speeds of 50 mph roared over Bailey Flat, north of Bly, causing fire crews to begin evacuating.

But then, right as the flames reached the property line, the wind suddenly died down. The meadow and surrounding uplands along the North Fork Sprague remain largely green, while the trees just upstream stand toasted and torched.

“It’s hard not to feel spiritual about that,” Garrett said. “It was just absolutely miraculous.”

Garrett said the stars have aligned in more ways than one on this 912-acre property, now called Harmony Preserve. He and Ganong — both avid fly fishermen — purchased it last October and have been working with Trout Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore its land and water.

While Harmony Preserve is largely a private fishing getaway for the current Bay Area residents, both of whom have roots in the Klamath Basin, it’s also an exceptional opportunity to provide habitat for fish and wildlife, naturally store water and even capture eroded sediment from the Bootleg Fire scar.

“We’re doing everything we can to bring it back to baseline,” Garrett said. “This is the only chance we get to err on the side of kindness. Why not pay forward with a project like this?” 

Human beavers

As the North Fork Sprague emerges from a canyon cut into the slopes of Gearhart Mountain, the preserve’s meadow provides the first spot for the river to deposit phosphorus-rich volcanic sediment carried from its headwaters, now almost entirely burned by the Bootleg Fire. The ashy, hydrophobic soils — no longer held together by ground vegetation — will severely erode into rivulets and streams, sending excess phosphorus into Upper Klamath Lake.

The lake’s nutrients, which were already too high before the fire thanks to land use changes, fuel ever-worsening blue-green algae blooms that scientists believe contribute to the death of entire year-classes of juvenile C’waam and Koptu, driving the fish toward extinction.

Swift Water Designs restoration technicians Joe Sybrian, right, and Heather Carey cut posts to be used in building beaver dam analogs as part of the restoration project along the North Fork Sprague River on Harmony Preserve on Nov. 12, 2021. (Photo by Arden Barnes/Herald and News, Report for America)

Charlie Erdman, restoration project coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said Harmony Preserve sits at an ideal spot in the watershed to help capture some of that phosphorus before it can continue downstream. Historically, the wet meadow caused water to slow down and spread out into various channels, directed by beaver dams.

Sediment would settle to the riverbed and nutrients would be absorbed by wetland and riparian vegetation, filtering the Sprague. The beaver dams also created calm, deep pools that provided ideal places for juvenile trout and salmon to take shelter and snack on invertebrates living in the submerged wood. Bringing back those natural processes could turn Harmony Preserve back into a sediment filter right as it’s most needed.

“It’s just nice to work on a project where you really feel like, by doing a little bit, you can have a really big pull,” Erdman said.

Erdman said the fire drove many beavers out of the uplands and into the preserve area, and just during the past two months they’ve been hard at work creating structures that are slowly helping to reflood a meadow that used to be cattle pasture. But the beavers, whose populations were decimated by fur traders in the early 19th Century, need a little help.

That’s where TU’s project comes in. By installing structures that function similarly to beaver dams, contracted restoration crews from Swift Water Designs and Anabranch Solutions are helping the Sprague reclaim the meadow. They chopped down burned trees and invasive junipers on the property and placed them at various points in the stream, securing the logs with wooden posts to keep them in place during periods of high water.

Some structures span the width of the river, slowing water and allowing sediment to settle out, while partial blockages create eddies perfect for baby fish. It’s a dance of erosion and deposition that brings the river back to a semblance of how it functioned naturally.

“Rivers are supposed to be dynamic, and these structures will really help restore those processes,” Erdman said.

The Harmony Preserve project employs process-based restoration, a relatively low-tech approach that lets the Sprague — not construction equipment — do most of the work. Other than using machines to cut the trees and posts and move them to the riverbank, all the human “beavers” have to do is decide where to place the structures.

Biologists came out to the preserve in October to study the river course and determine where they would place the faux beaver dams. They took into account the topography of the area and used a tool developed to analyze how many natural blockages a given stream can handle. While they used scientific data to place each structure, work on the ground brought in an element of improvisation — the stream had the final say.

“This is just a suggestion to the river,” said Samantha Bango, one of the Anabranch crew’s leaders on the project. “This is having a conversation with the river, rather than having a monologue with the river. It’s that low-tech piece — we’re talking with the river. We’re creating this conversation of where it might go.”

This work wasn’t scheduled to start until next year, but after the Bootleg Fire burned almost the entire watershed upstream from Harmony Preserve, the project partners decided it was crucial to get those sediment traps placed in the river before high flows return this winter and spring.

Though the project is taking place on private land, the partners still had to get permission from state and federal agencies, including the Oregon Department of State lands and Endangered Species Act approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service. But Erdman said getting those permits took less than a month, which is virtually “unheard of” in the restoration space.

“The permitting process was really easy for this project, mainly because the state agencies and federal agencies that are in charge of that process recognize the urgency of getting this work done before weather came in,” he said.

The North Fork Sprague River spreads over a meadow on Harmony Preserve on Nov. 12, 2021. (Photo by Arden Barnes/Herald and News, Report for America)

Kevin Swift, owner of Swift Water Designs, said red tape is primary obstacle to completing restoration work. In his company’s home state of California, the shortest permitting process they’ve gone through is seven weeks. Particularly in the Klamath Basin, where expansive restoration work has been desperately needed for decades to revive species on the brink of extinction, the very laws designed to protect the environment can sometimes get in the way of healing it.

“As far as I’m concerned, regulations are the choke point, period. That’s the thing that’s keeping us from doing more work, sooner,” Swift said. “We need a regulatory environment that explicitly demands more, better work, faster.”

Permitting woes

Despite being the original stewards of the land burned by the Bootleg Fire, the Klamath Tribes haven’t been so lucky in their push to mitigate sediment loading from the burn scar. Still, they’re doing what they can.

On Wednesday morning, a small group of tribal members met along the banks of Fivemile Creek in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, surrounded by bare, blackened trees and ashy, moon-like soils. The Bootleg burned incredibly hot here, incinerating the pine needles that dead trees would usually drop to the forest floor. Spring snowmelt will scour the hillside and erode the charred soil into the river without those needles there to slow it down.

Near where the old OC&E Line crosses the tributary to the Sprague River, the five aquatic resources technicians unloaded bales of hay from their trucks and began spreading the straw in a 10-foot-wide strip parallel to the streambank. The sight and smell of beige straw pieces was particularly out of place in the severely burned forest.

Team leader James Esqueda said the weed-free hay will mimic the function of those lost pine needles, allowing runoff to enter Fivemile Creek while capturing some of the sediment it carries. The tribes’ Aquatics Department surveyed public lands in the Bootleg burn area over the last several months, identifying key drainages to apply sediment-capturing treatments to.

But Esqueda said this straw mulching is the least effective measure the tribes have in their arsenal. They’d much rather be doing instream work similar to the crews on Harmony Preserve: placing structures that capture sediment within the stream itself. But the lengthy process of securing the necessary permits from public agencies to do so has kept them confined to the slopes, spreading hay.

“We’re scratching the surface. This is all they’re going to, for the time being, allow us to do,” Esqueda said.

Stan Swerdloff, the tribes’ aquatics director, said his staff have had to request permits from multiple different agencies, which vary depending on who owns the land they hope to work on.

Despite wanting to implement sediment mitigation projects to prevent life from getting worse for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the tribes must get ESA approval to work in many streams considered critical habitat for endangered bull trout. Even laws protecting cultural sites get in the way, despite the fact that those sites are part of the Klamath Tribes’ own history.

“It’s been agonizing, to say the least,” Swerdloff said. “Each individual land type has given us a different set of problems.”

While the bureaucratic nature of permitting is necessary to an extent to prevent environmental harm, Swerdloff said the processes don’t lend themselves to the timely implementation of emergency measures. The tribes have been in permitting limbo for the better part of two months and only recently got the go-ahead from the Forest Service just to do the straw spreading.

“A lot of this stuff that we’re running up against is counterintuitive,” Swerdloff said. “I’m not blaming people — this is just the way that bureaucracies are set up. They’re not set up to handle emergencies.”

The North Fork Sprague River spreads over a meadow on Harmony Preserve on Nov. 12, 2021. (Photo by Arden Barnes/Herald and News, Report for America)

On Forest Service land, at least, specific measures identified in the Bootleg Fire’s burned area emergency response (BAER) report released this summer can be fast-tracked and easily funded by the federal government. But Mark Buettner, a fisheries biologist on the Klamath Tribes’ aquatics team, said the BAER report didn’t make any recommendations for sediment mitigation, requiring the tribes to seek out private grant funding to do that work.

“They estimated that severe short-term impacts would occur but did not propose any actions,” Buettner said.

The tribes used their grant money to hire staff and purchase hay bales to place directly into streams as check dams, which is a faster process than constructing beaver dam analogs. But Buettner said the Forest Service no longer considers straw bales as automatically approved post-fire emergency measures. That drew the permitting process out by several weeks as the Forest Service performed a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis, which will eventually allow an exception for the bales.

Additionally, the Forest Service is requiring the tribes to get permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, which can take 30-60 days to review an application. They’ve said they will expedite the review, and just this week Green Diamond gave the tribes permission to place bale dams in streams on their property. Still, Swerdloff worries that the go-aheads are coming too late for tribal crews to make sufficient headway on instream work before the areas get snowed out.

“It’s going to take time, and time is our enemy right now. In the past two months, we could’ve gotten a lot done,” Swerdloff said. “We’ve got adequate funding for the emergency work, and we’ve hired staff to help us, and we just can’t do the work.”

The irony of not being allowed to quickly perform restoration work on Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin ancestral homelands isn’t lost on Esqueda. Though the Klamath Tribes have entered into a master stewardship agreement with the Forest Service and have some say in how the forest is managed, they can’t do this work without federal permission because they don’t own the land.

“It’s extremely frustrating to us as a Native people and the first stewards of this land. We love our land. We want to take care of our land. What has been done before is not working,” he said. “Let us get out on that landscape and do what we want to do. Who better than us?”

Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry shared that frustration, adding that while the tribes owning the land outright wouldn’t fully exempt them from all environmental permits, it would allow this work to be done more quickly. But more urgent is finding a way to consolidate the dizzying number of permits that must be acquired to help the watershed recover from ever-worsening wildfires.

“There’s various ways to improve — I’m just not sure how to pull it all together. But hopefully folks see there’s a real need to, so we can provide emergency short-term mitigation of fire impacts,” Gentry said. “How do we work more cooperatively together on landscape management?”

Natayah Lang, an aquatic resources technician who was hired on temporarily to do sediment mitigation work, said that while she’d rather be getting into Fivemile Creek itself to build nutrient-capturing structures, every molecule of phosphorus counts.

“I like that we’re putting in an effort at least. It’s better than not doing anything,” Lang said. “It’s no as much as we’d want to do, but it’s something.”

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This story was originally published at Herald & News.