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Restoration builds haven for salmon.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

FLORENCE - In autumn, when broad maple leaves spin down toward Oregon's gurgling creeks and rivers, old, fat salmon come back from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.

This journey is a precarious one, especially for coho salmon. Despite a dramatic rebound in their numbers in recent years, the fish remain on the Endangered Species Act's threatened list - in part, because there are too few places for them to lay their eggs.

That's why Rolfe Hagen decided to step in and help. He and his wife, Janet, own Thyme Garden, an herb company a few miles east of Alsea. It's a serene, narrow 80-acre parcel filled with moss-coated alder and sword ferns.

The farmer who owned this land 60 years ago probably diverted the natural path of Ernst Creek, pushing it toward the deeper Crooked Creek, so he could keep a section of his land dry for crops. As a result, up to a mile of vital salmon spawning habitat was lost.

Now, after three years of paperwork and hard work, Hagen and state government partners have brought new life to the dry creek bed. When the rains come, salmon will fill Ernst Creek once again.

"It's perfect for coho to spawn in," says Hagen. "If we get some rain, there'll be 30-pound fish up here."

Bang for the buck

Private-public partnerships to restore salmon habitat are nothing new. Since 1995, private landowners have helped improve at least 1,200 miles of spawning grounds.

What's unique about Hagen's project is how easy it was to accomplish.

Most improvements to spawning grounds are either minor adjustments - placing boulders and logs in streams to create slack water where fish can rest and lay eggs; or planting trees along banks for protection from harsh sunlight. Or, they're massive undertakings - digging up an entire channel and creating a new habitat from scratch.

At Thyme Garden, nature had already done most of the heavy lifting. All Hagen had to do was create a berm to divert Ernst Creek from its path to Crooked Creek, and then remove the berm that blocked its original route.

"You don't often get an opportunity like (restoring a historical stream)," said Tony Stein, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which participated in the project. "This gained about a half-mile of the river channel that was bone dry."

The Thyme Garden endeavor, funded with a $10,000 grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, is one of only five private landowner projects ever undertaken to restore a historical streambed.

"That's a huge bang for your minor investment," said Steve Trask, a fish biologist with the private biological consultant Bio-Surveys of Alsea.

The idea first came to Hagen three years ago. Trask had been doing "snorkel surveys" in area creeks, counting fish and identifying good spots for habitat restoration.

What Trask liked about the Ernst Creek site was its gentle 2 percent grade, its location in the floodplain and that it had been a creek in the past. When he approached the Hagens about restoring the creek, they jumped at the chance, joining a growing segment of landowners interested in improving the salmon habitat on their properties.

"One neighbor sees what's been going on in the watershed of his neighbor's property," Trask said. "They see it doesn't look so bad after all. It isn't the government trying to take over your land - which is a lot of people's original fear."

They also see how such projects can benefit their property. Riparian improvements can stabilize stream banks, retaining shade and soil along creeks and rivers. But the bigger goal is maintaining the entire watershed, Trask said, which makes it crucial that public and private landowners work together.

"What we're trending towards now is working on fewer projects that are much larger," he said.

Forging a trail

Volunteers completed an interpretive trail Nov. 1 so visitors can see the creek bed, which is only beginning to fill with water.

The Hagens hope visitors will become inspired to initiate similar projects on their own properties. "We consider ourselves stewards of the land," said Janet Hagen. "So if there's something to do to make things better, we wanted to do it."

As he took a break from trail building last week, volunteer Jim Merrigan said he was happy to be involved in the project.

"It's nice to give a little bit back," said Jim Merrigan, a friend who volunteered to help clear the trail. "Maybe it keeps us from having to just tell the story to our grandkids, about watching salmon spawn."

Winston Ross can be reached at 902-9030 or rgcoast@oregonfast.net.

HABITAT RESTORATION

Landowner interest in habitat improvement projects - such as tree planting, invasive species removal and fence building- has varied since 1995, when the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board began keeping track of such projects.

1995: 36 projects, 38 miles of improved habitat

1996: 80 projects, 84 miles

1997: 95 projects, 195 miles

1998: 67 projects, 139 miles

1999: 96 projects, 124 miles

2000: 99 projects, 153 miles

2001: 104 projects, 160 miles

2002: 62 projects, 66 miles

IN-STREAM PROJECTS

Some property owners take on in-stream projects, such as placing logs and boulders into streams:

1995: 17 projects, 9 miles of improved habitat

1996: 36 projects, 8 miles

1997: 42 projects, 38 miles

1998: 46 projects, 35 miles

1999: 37 projects, 19 miles

2000: 31 projects, 18 miles

2001: 18 projects, 65 miles

2002: 23 projects, 9.5 miles

CAPTION(S):

Janet and Rolfe Hagen help each other over a berm they constructed to restore an old creek bed on their property that will add critical salmon habitat to Ernst Creek near Alsea. The project is an example of the growing ease of public-private partnerships to help the fish.
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Title Annotation:Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 8, 2003
Words:962
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