Forest Service protects fish in Revised Forest Plans, while grazing, logging continue

September 2018

An updated blueprint for the management of 5.5 million acres of public land in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington prioritizes habitat restoration for threatened salmon and steelhead where the fish need it most, boosting their chances for recovery in coming decades.

The Blue Mountains Aquatic and Riparian Conservation Strategy, which the U.S. Forest Service integrated into its Revised Forest Plans for the Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, replaces a patchwork of temporary protections for fish with a comprehensive strategy that targets improvements in priority watersheds identified by NOAA Fisheries’ recovery plans.

Promoting habitat restoration

The changes will focus work in places like Limber Jim Creek, where the Forest Service in 2017 used logs and tree limbs to force high springtime flows out onto the floodplain. That promotes growth of streamside vegetation that will shade the stream and contribute cold water, which is essential to fish in the hot, dry months of summer. The Forest Service plans to extend the same approach to nearby creeks in 2018 and 2019.

river running through forest in a constrained channel

Before and after: On Limber Jim Creek, the Forest Service used logs and tree limbs to force high springtime flows out onto the floodplain, expanding habitat for salmon and steelhead. Above: an untreated area in May 2018. Photo: Sarah Fesenmeyer, NOAA Fisheries

river in forest opening into a flattened floodplain

A restored reach. Photo: Sarah Fesenmeyer, NOAA Fisheries

“The Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests have stepped up by developing a strategy to restore healthy stream conditions across a vast area,” says NOAA Fisheries biologist Bill Lind, who worked with the Forest Service. “Our salmon and steelhead runs in the Pacific Northwest need this kind of landscape-level restoration and planning in order to have a decent chance at recovery.”

NOAA Fisheries helped the Forest Service and other stakeholders develop the new watershed conservation strategy, part of the Revised Blue Mountains Forest Plans that will guide grazing, logging, mining, recreation, and other uses of these three National Forests in coming years.  Federal agencies, tribes, states, counties, non-governmental organizations, the public, and other stakeholders spent more than a decade developing Revised Forest Plans that balance the economic well-being of the region with forest health and clean water, supporting the recovery of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

river at the bottom of a wood and grass covered canyon

The Grande Ronde River flows between the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests, and is among more than 1,000 miles of rivers and streams designated as critical habitat for threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead stocks in the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur National Forests. Photo: Sarah Fesenmeyer, NOAA Fisheries

Collaboration strengthens plans

“The Revised Blue Mountains Forest Plans were designed to contribute to the recovery of ESA-listed salmon and steelhead, as well as other species, while continuing to support multiple uses such as timber harvest and livestock grazing,” said Tom Montoya, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor.  “We appreciate the valuable contributions made by NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, states, tribes, local governments, the public, and other stakeholders during this plan revision process.”

Land use and development stretching back more than a century have altered hundreds of miles of salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat in these three National Forests, straightening stream channels and leaving them empty of the wood that shelters fish from high flows and predators. That further exposes the streams to elevated temperatures that come with climate change, and may put salmon and steelhead at greater risk. Small stream restoration projects scattered across the region cannot address the problem at the scale required.

The Revised Blue Mountains Forest Plans instead include a comprehensive Aquatic and Riparian Conservation Strategy. The strategy identifies priority watersheds for restoration and includes annual and 10-year targets for the amount of stream restoration that the Forest Service will promote in these watersheds over the next 15 years. The priority watersheds and types of stream restoration identified in the Forest Plans align with the actions identified in NOAA Fisheries’ recovery plans for salmon and steelhead. 

red boat floating on broad, shallow river

The Grande Ronde River watershed provides important spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead. Photo: Sarah Fesenmeyer, NOAA Fisheries

Plans set restoration goals

For the Blue Mountains, the Revised Forest Plans update interim guidance that were developed in the mid-1990s as a temporary solution for streams on federal land in the Pacific Northwest. NOAA Fisheries worked closely with the Forest Service to ensure that the new Forest Plans maintain riparian areas that protect streams and set measurable goals for improved stream conditions even as timber harvest, grazing, and other land uses continue.

The Revised Forest Plans build on the Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests’ ongoing efforts to restore natural conditions that have historically supported native salmon and steelhead in those areas. As a case in point, in the Upper Grande Ronde River on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the Forest Service is working with NOAA Fisheries and other partner organizations to remove fish passage barriers, restore floodplains and side channels, and create log jams across 10 priority watersheds important to salmon and steelhead recovery.

On Beaver Creek, for instance, the City of La Grande worked with the Forest Service this year to build a 60-step fish ladder to help steelhead surmount the dam for the La Grande Reservoir, for the first time since 1910.  NOAA Fisheries’ recovery plan for Snake River steelhead prioritized the project that will reopen 17 miles of historic steelhead habitat above the reservoir.

“It’s inspiring that the Forest Service is moving from postage-stamp restoration projects to strategic, climate-informed restoration of watershed processes, working with local conservation partners,” says Levi Old, Northeast Oregon Project Manager with Trout Unlimited. Conservation partners include tribes, state, and federal agencies, and non-profits, such as the Grande Ronde Model Watershed.

NOAA Fisheries expects the Blue Mountains Aquatic and Riparian Conservation Strategy to serve as a model when NOAA Fisheries biologists work with the Forest Service on revising Forest Plans for 13 other national forests covering tens of millions of acres in Oregon and Washington.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

NOAA Fisheries salmon and steelhead recovery plans

Habitat conservation in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region

Home page photo: Sarah Fesenmeyer, NOAA Fisheries