Starting as a trickle on the slopes of Bald Mountain, Ritner Creek flows through forest, swirls around farmland and glides past homes to meet the Luckiamute River just past its namesake covered bridge. At first glance, much of the upper section of this small tributary looks relatively healthy and lush with vegetation. However, the appearance of upper Ritner Creek mirrors that of many other waterways in our area that have been scarred by the impacts of historical practices. Even though modern timber harvest guidelines aim to protect riparian (streamside) habitat, the effects of historical logging practices continue to negatively impact our waterways in many ways. One of the most damaging of these practices – splash-damming – has resulted in increased erosion, barriers to salmon and trout migration, and a loss of the large wood so important to healthy in-stream habitat. Today, exposed bedrock and the lack of gravel on the streambed are just a few of the issues facing Ritner Creek as a result of historical splash-damming and log drives, more than seventy years after these practices were abandoned in our area.
A mapping and analysis tool called NetMap has helped us identify upper Ritner Creek and other stream sections within our watershed that have the most potential to be restored to high-value salmonid habitat. Thanks in part to our use of this innovative analysis tool, the LWC was recently awarded an Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board grant to help restore Upper Ritner Creek, and set it back on the road to recovery. Hancock Forest Management and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are partnering with the LWC as landowners and contributors on the project.
The Upper Ritner Creek Splash Dam Recovery project started in June 2018, with invasive weed control in order to allow native vegetation to recolonize a half-mile section of the project area that is dominated by reed canary grass. Then, thanks to the Trask Design and Construction crew, 162 logs in 27 large wood structures were installed along 1.6 miles of the creek (scroll down to check out the log placement video!). These log jams will help slow down the water velocity, reducing erosion and allowing gravel to settle to the streambed. Gravel is essential for both the macroinvertebrates that serve as a food source for native fish and as substrate for spawning adults. Log jams also allow the stream channel to meander through the floodplain forest, providing nutrients and refuge for juvenile fish during high winter flows. The LWC is ensuring that large logs will continue to be naturally present within Ritner Creek by contracting with Kuznetsov Thinning Company to plant 1,100 native conifers throughout the project area. Conifer planting was completed in February 2019.
In December 2020, Kuznetsov crewmembers used 2,800 live willow cuttings to replant the areas that had formerly been covered in invasive reed canary grass. In addition to increasing the speed of forest regeneration, the hope is that this area will once again harbor dam-building beaver—for whom willow is an important food source. Beaver dams provide incredibly valuable habitat for native salmon and trout, as well as countless other aquatic and riparian species. The re-colonization of this area by beaver would be a huge step towards the recovery of our vulnerable steelhead, coho salmon and cutthroat trout populatiions, and would help store water for slow release later in the summer.
Check out action footage of log placement in Upper Ritner Creek below!