Watershed rehabilitation through public-private partnership
by Woodie Walker
Sunlight filtered through fall leaves, lighting a pool of mountain water below. Three brook trout, bright with their orange and red spawning colors, hovered over the deepest part, the creek bottom below a collection of gravel and sand. The largest trout seemed to hold the others’ attention. Wherever that fish went, the others followed.
“This is why we do what we do,” said Lindsey Hayes, a watershed technician with the U.S. Forest Service in Bartow. “This is prime brook trout spawning and rearing habitat. If we enhance the quality of these streams to make it better for trout, we’ll make it better for everything that lives here.”
Hayes is helping lead a unique public-private partnership solving water quality concerns in the Monongahela National Forest. Along with Trout Unlimited (TU) volunteers and staff members from TU’s Home Rivers Initiative, part of the group’s flagship restoration program, forest service personnel are designing and implementing a wide array of projects that address aquatic habitat issues such as pool quality, stream sedimentation, water temperature and fish passage for migratory species, including brook trout.
TU is a nationwide non-profit group, with more than 140,000 members dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s cold water fisheries and their watersheds. Founded in 1959, the group now includes about 400 chapters nationwide, with more than 1,300 members in West Virginia.
The partnership effort is located in the watershed created by the upper Greenbrier River, in the northern part of Pocahontas County. Known as the Upper Greenbrier North Project, more than 85,000 acres are targeted by the forest service for watershed rehabilitation work that started in October and will continue for several years. The work with TU will focus on a portion of the overall project area.
Aquatic Ecologist Michael Owen oversees watershed protection and restoration efforts in the Monongahela. The work that began this fall is the latest in a series of collaborative efforts between the forest service and TU, under an umbrella agreement that could be amended to include additional work in the future.
There are three primary components, said Owen. The first involves decommissioning about 15 miles of old roads to eliminate sediment sources. The second uses large, woody material strategically placed in streams to recreate complex habitats and stable stream channels. The third part enhances the ability of fish to move more freely throughout the stream.
“This project is breaking new ground in our relationship with Trout Unlimited,” Owen said. “In the past we’ve worked together on water quality monitoring and data collection, and we’ve done some riparian fencing projects, but this is taking it to a whole new level. This is a comprehensive watershed approach.”
The brook trout is West Virginia’s only native trout. In order to reproduce, brookies need the cleanest and coldest mountain water available, the kind found on the Monongahela National Forest.
“Rainbow trout and brown trout can reproduce in warmer temperatures,” said Gary Berti, director of TU’s Eastern Home Rivers Initiative. “These native brook trout will only reproduce where the water is pure, cold and highly-oxygenated. Our goal is to work with the forest service and get as much conservation on the ground as we can for every dollar spent.”
Hayes watched as a TU staff member used an excavator to break up a compacted old road in an area along Route 28, east of Bartow. Soil from the downslope side of the road was loosely spread along the upslope side, making it easier for rainwater to infiltrate and for tree roots to get established.
“A lot of these roads are not used and they occur close to streams,” she said. “They can be big sources of sediment, the number-one pollutant in our streams. As we reduce erosion, we increase the spawning potential in the stream and the number of insects that trout feed on.”
“This is a great example of good land stewardship,” said Berti. “Everything we do on the landscape affects something downstream. By combining forest service funds with TU funds, we can reverse the trend of decreasing native trout populations. And what is good for trout, especially in areas like this, is good for the people downstream.”
Snowfall has stopped much of the implementation effort for this year, but not before more than 1,500 feet of old road was treated and seeded. The success of this effort has Owen looking forward to spring.
“We’re treating the problem at the source,” he said, “not just treating symptoms. It’s a holistic treatment of watershed conditions. Plus there’s the benefit to the local economy. Dollars are being put to work locally to purchase supplies and materials, but there’s also the tourism value when it comes to fishermen being attracted to the area by the improved resource conditions.”
Woodie Walker is an AmeriCorps member serving with Appalachian Forest Heritage Area. For more information about the Monongahela National Forest, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/mnf
For more information about Trout Unlimited in West Virginia, visit http://www.wvtu.org/