The sound is both unmistakable and awe-inspiring.

A Columbia Helicopters Vertol 107-II appears over the ridgeline carrying an impressive load of logs. Technicians with Yakama Nation Fisheries wait on the ground along with crew from Columbia Helicopters for the payload to be placed in strategic locations marked by ribbons along the streambed of Swauk Creek. The pilot peers out of a viewing turret on the side of the helicopter while he places the logs with pinpoint precision. He releases the coupling connecting the chokers to the tow line and the logs find their ultimate resting place in the creek. The ground crew removes the chokers and ribbons, examines the resting place of the logs and moves on to the next location.

The Yakima Basin “Wood Fiesta” is a massive undertaking. It involves multiple agencies working together to move thousands of logs to remote areas of seven tributaries of the Yakima River. Due to the remoteness, use of a helicopter was deemed the most effective way to complete the task. The project began in early October and will continue through November. In Kittitas County, sites along Lick, Swauk, Umtanum and Manastash Creek have been chosen for log placement. The project also includes the Little Naches River, Little Rattlesnake and Satus Creek in Yakima County.

The purpose of the project is to restore and enhance stream habitats by creating log jam conditions along floodplains. Such conditions help create ideal habitats for fish spawning, promote more abundant habitats for both large and small fish as well as aquatic insects and helps recharge ground water. The project aims to reverse 100 years of impacts that have reduced natural wood placement in streambeds.

Multiple agencies are involved in the project, including Yakima Nation Fisheries, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources and the USDA Forest Service. Private landowners were also involved with the facilitation of the Swauk Creek project.

ORGANIZATION

Yakama Nation Fisheries Habitat Biologist Ashton Bunce said her supervisor Scott Nicolai was a brainchild of the concept. She said he had walked many of the sites selected for the project and felt they would be ideal places for stream restoration efforts, but they were all very remote areas where there were issues getting in with heavy equipment because of the terrain and vegetation around them.

Bunce said the agency gained access to funding which had a stipulation that it had to be spent within a year’s time. The funding allowed use of a helicopter, and thus made the idea a reality. She said as a project list was developed, more agencies partnered to bring money to the table.

“The project has grown and grown,” she said. “Now it’s become this huge effort.”

Bunce said the funds for the project, totaling just under $2 million came from the Bonneville Power Administration, The McNary Mitigation Fund, Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, Salmon Recovery Funding Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Wildlife & Recreation Coalition and The Nature Conservancy.

“It’s really a mix of state and federal money and mitigation money for the dams,” she said.

Bunce said Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group obtained two grants that supported the project locations at Manastash Creek and Rattlesnake Creek.

“They have been an integral part in this in helping us design and implement this project,” she said.

Bunce said when possible, the project tried to source the wood, estimated at over 5,000 logs from land managed by The Nature Conservancy and WDFW. She said partnering agencies are working to thin smaller, less dominant trees to make the forest more resilient against wildfires.

“We try to partner with them and get those trees from them when they’re doing that type of forest health thinning project,” she said. “We use those trees for our restoration work and so it’s sort of a win-win for both the forest and the streams.”

Some of the challenges that faced the project included taking hunting seasons into consideration, as well as endangered species and spawning patterns for fish. Bunce said the WDFW issues permits for when the helicopters can fly, and then weather dictates the rest.

“Everything is very limited,” she said. “We just get these little windows in time where we can implement them, and we hope for the best.”

ON THE GROUND

Yakama Nation Fisheries Habitat Biologist and Project Manager Scott Nicolai said although his agency has been involved with large wood replenishment projects for about 11 years, this is the first time helicopters have been used.

“The only reason we are using it here is because the access is virtually impossible any other way without a lot of impact,” he said. “Helicopters are expensive, but they can move a lot of material in a real hurry. Once you get it all set up and if you have your ducks in really nice neat rows, then they can get a lot of work done.”

Nicolai said the project in whole has gone well and has stayed ahead of schedule. He said they are finishing about 20 percent faster than they expected.

“It’s great,” he said. “We’re saving money.”

Nicolai said the goal for the project is to re-engage the flood plain. He said years of removing woody material from streams and straightening them through practices such as dynamiting helped encourage drainage.

“That’s gotten the water off the landscape quicker,” he said. “Because of that, the creek has incised. It’s cut down deeper because it has so much more erosive power.”

Nicolai said by putting the wood in the floodplain, the water is slowed down in the stream during floods. By slowing it down, he said it raises the elevation of the water table and spreads it out over a larger area.

“During floods, that’s really critical,” he said. “It allows that water to inundate the flood plain and make the ground wet. Some of that water soaks into the ground and recharges the groundwater table.”

The helicopters run for eight hours at a time, stopping every 70 minutes to refuel on site. Nicolai said they can carry up to 15 logs each turn depending on size. He said the turns are limited to a maximum of approximately 10,000 pounds. Two crews are stationed at different spots on the creek, while a crew also monitors the source wood levels at the top of the ridge.

There are different types of wood being placed in the stream. Nicolai said there are conventional logs, but also trees with both large and small root wads attached.

“Those are really valuable in the stream,” he said. “They really tend to hang up and things hang up against them.”

Placement is key for the different types of logs. Nicolai said some areas of the stream benefit from larger root wads, while some areas are ideal for smaller logs. He said they count on high water flows to move logs into natural positions along the streambed.

“We’re giving the stream what it needs and then the stream does the restoration,” he said.

Nicolai said in the 27 years he has been working on habitat restoration, the attitude in the valley has come full-circle. He said whereas once people questioned if salmon even had a right to be in a valley dominated by agriculture, now county commissioners are voicing their support for grant funding to aid restoration efforts.

“It gives me chills,” he said. “The integrated plan, all the effort that’s going on. It’s just amazing how collaborative our basin is.”

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