Have they been “playing God” at Whychus Creek near Sisters, Oregon? I have witnessed the destruction of habitat before but never the restoration on such a huge scale. I went to the Whychus Canyon Preserve recently with the Deschutes Land Trust on a tour of the project. They and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, with the support of several other agencies and nonprofits, started to do field work on rehabilitating six miles of the creek in 2016. It is an enormous undertaking and it’s expected to take around seven years to complete.
Restoration in progress
Whychus Creek is a 41-mile long waterway that has its origin in the Cascade Mountains. It flows through the city of Sisters, forested, and agricultural lands to eventually enter the Deschutes River. Historically, it provided prime habitat for spawning, rearing, and migration of redband trout, spring Chinook, and summer steelhead. Continue reading →
In late October I visited the Indian Ford Preserve, which is located several miles northeast of Sisters, Oregon, with Deschutes Land Trust (DLT) leader Kelly Madden. This is the flagship property of the group and it was purchased in 1995. Preserves are purchased outright, donated, or are protected through easement agreements with the owners. This property is 63 acres in size and consists of meadow, forest, and stream habitat. Indian Ford Creek meanders through the property. It is on the border of land dominated by Ponderosa pine or Western juniper.
There is a wide variety of wildlife that uses the preserve. I could see sign of mule deer and saw a herd nearby on my drive there. It was a quiet day for bird life the day I was there but I heard California quail, Steller’s jay, and pygmy nuthatch and saw a song sparrow, bald eagle, and a fleeting glimpse of a warbler. I wasn’t there for long but can tell you that based on the bird checklist for the site and observing the edges of different kinds of habitats; it’s probably pretty active in the spring and summer. DLT is always looking for help in doing bird surveys on their preserves. If that interests you, go here.
I went on this walk to see fall foliage. I learned that warm fall days, cool nights, and no frost create the brightest foliage. Elevation, moisture, and genetics can also affect how the foliage looks. The golden leaves of quaking aspen fluttered on the west side of the creek but there was little other color on this trip. The drought has adversely affected plant growth and fall color.
Trees on the Preserve
I learned more about Western juniper from our guide. This slow growing, long-lived species can change its sex from year to year. They are sometimes hermaphroditic – or both sexes. When the trees are younger than ten years in age, they send down tap roots that are 51” long. At around the age of ten, the roots start expanding out laterally. The root system can be five times the height of the tree. They like to start to grow under sagebrush but they don’t do as well in shaded areas as they mature. They start maturing when they are around 25 years old and are full reproductive maturity by age 75. Their growth form is pointy and triangular until they are about 100 years old. At around 120 years of age, the tree splits and takes on a more open form.
I also learned some new facts about aspen. The main tree in a grove is called the “Grandma” tree while the rest are referred to as the nursery. The grandma has the darkest bark in an aspen stand. We learned that early settlers often left a blaze mark, otherwise known as an arborglyph, on the tree trunks.
I recently saw a sign at a local nursery that said, “Buy one aspen and get one free!” and it cracked me up. Knowing that they are clones and sprout up from one “Grandma” I wondered how many trees an unsuspecting customer might end up with.
Rehabilitating the site
DLT has rehabilitated the habitat on this preserve. Invasive and non-native plants have been pulled. Willow has been planted along the streambanks. Cattle and other livestock are fenced out of this piece of property. In the past as many as 30,000 cattle grazed in this region. As a result of the Deschutes Land Trusts’ habitat rehabilitation efforts, salmon have been observed in the creek for the first time since 1964.
Native Americans regularly camped in this area and forded the creek here. The Northern Paiute and Molalla tribes lived in this area. It has been used for over 10,000 years. From here they may have gone on excursions to collect obsidian near Paulina Lake, collect food at Abert Lake, or trade with other tribes. One of the things local tribes here created were ornately decorated gloves. They were much sought after. The gloves were made all the way up until the 1920’s.
Some tribal members went up to the 10,358 foot peak of South Sister on vision quests. It is thought that Native Americans went up there to mourn a death in the family, to celebrate the start of puberty, or to deal with a stressful time in their lives. They made rock piles and likely did not eat or drink and exercised to the point of exhaustion. The 5-6 foot high rock stacks were discovered on the summit by explorer Adolph Dekum in 1883.
Explorers, trappers, & settlers
Explorers, trappers, and settlers started coming to this area in the 1800’s. In 1825, Peter Skene Ogden, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, camped nearby at Whychus Creek and let his horses graze in the meadows of Indian Ford. John C. Fremont explored areas near here in December of 1843. A military camp was established at Camp Polk in September of 1865 to protect resident miners and settlers. It was only used until May of 1866 and there were never any wars with local tribes.
After the military camp was abandoned, Samuel Hindman and his family moved into the area and had a post office and store. In 1888, the post office was moved into present day Sisters. The name of the town was changed from Camp Polk to Sisters after the nearby mountain peaks. The town was located along the Santiam Wagon Road and it soon prospered from all of the business generated by travelers. In 1901, the town of Sisters was formally established.
Visiting the preserve
A visit to this preserve gives you a magnificent view of the nearby peaks and buttes and a look at a meandering creek that has been carefully restored to its former glory. The preserve is rich in recent and ancient history and you can see why native peoples and settlers chose to visit and live here.
I recently went on a Deschutes Land Trust hike just west of Bend, OR to learn about fire ecology. The area we hiked in is known as the Skyline Forest. There were fires in this vicinity in 2010 and 2014 and together they burned about 6,000 acres. The area is currently privately owned but the Deschutes Land Trust has been trying to acquire it.
Our guide, Pete Caligiuri with The Nature Conservancy, informed us that this area has about the steepest environmental gradient in the world. In the Cascade Mountains the precipitation can be as high as 160 inches per year while less than 25 miles away, it can be as low as 10 inches per year. Plants respond to the extreme amount of variability in this gradient. In the past, fire and moisture limited the number of trees in the forest. Now there can be as many as 800-900 trees per acre in this area.
We looked around to see how many large stumps left over from timber harvesting we could see. There weren’t many at all. At one time this forest had the trees much more widely spaced. We noticed the high number of young trees with branches reaching down closer to the ground. There was also a thick growth of underbrush that included bitterbrush and manzanita. The forest floor was covered with pine needles and fallen branches. The closer spacing, higher number of shrubs, and accumulation of litter on the forest floor makes this forest more vulnerable to fire.
Improper management = more fires
Changes have occurred in local forests due to fire management practices, tree harvesting, and grazing of livestock.
Fires were suppressed instead of being used as a management tool. Every tree that germinated was considered important. In a normal fire cycle here, there are fires every 7-35 years – depending on the moisture gradient.
This was the area with the highest harvest rate of Ponderosa pine in the country for a while. The largest trees were cut first and the result was that younger, less fire-resistant trees flourished and crowded the landscape.
About three million sheep grazed in this area until the 1930’s when livestock grazing became a less popular industry. Cattle could graze on Deschutes National Forest lands until the 1990’s.
Five types of plants after fires
After fires, the plants that begin to grow can be broken down into five categories.
Invaders, such as fireweed, are adaptable and take advantage of the changed environment. We saw fireweed and thistle near the trail.
Evaders, such as Ceanothus, can burn above ground but be adapted to sprout when the conditions improve. Ceanothus seed can sit dormant for up to 100 years. We saw quite a bit of Ceanothus and manzanita in this fire-affected area.
Avoidersinclude plants such as mountain hemlock, Western white pine, and western juniper. They are not well adapted to tolerating a fire but if they avoid the hottest part of a fire, they may survive.
Resistors, such as Ponderosa pine, have special adaptations such as thick bark that allow them to survive a fire. Ponderosa pine can also cast seeds up to 300 feet away.
Endurers, like aspen, can sprout from their roots after the fire has passed. The aspen in this area is sprouting like crazy since it no longer has the competition for light that it had before the fire.
Due to long term changes in climate, some areas are changing from forested to non-forested habitats. Some habitats will only become drier over time. The warmer temperatures can also benefit the pine beetle and other insects that can destroy trees. We may experience more precipitation in the form of rain instead of snow and this will have long term consequences.
Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project
Five years ago several people from diverse backgrounds got together to form the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project. The group is working together to improve the health of local forests in a way that will benefit the needs of the community. For example, a land owner in a forested environment will have different needs than someone who just goes to the forest to recreate. The group is trying to work on active restoration before a fire rather than after it.
There are several ways people are trying to do a better job of managing forested lands. Homeowners that follow some of the guidelines suggested by the Firewise program have a better chance of protecting their homes from wildfires. Development could be limited in forested environments. The acres could be used to preserve and grow trees rather than houses. The Deschutes Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy are a couple of organizations that work towards preserving land in this area.
One of the management tools used today is prescribed, or controlled, burns. Forests used to be “messy” with some areas affected by localized fires, windstorms and other weather events, and insect infestations while other areas remained relatively untouched. The litter layer and understory beneath the trees was managed by these events.
Now, due to fire suppression, too much litter and too many trees and shrubs per acre have accumulated. Remember Smokey the Bear saying, “Only you can prevent forest fires”? Since fires are used as a management tool now, it’s been changed to “Only you can prevent wildfires”. Many people do not understand the concept of prescribed burns and do not like seeing and smelling the smoke from them. Prescribed burns, along with selective cutting and other tools, can reduce the chances of severe fires.
Due to the magnitude of acres burned in recent fires, less money is going into forest management since more is going into fighting fires. It only makes sense to have funds to fight fires come from the same funding source that manages other types of natural disaster events. It also makes sense to put more money into research so that we are better equipped to do what we can to manage wildfires based on the best available data. Okay, I’m jumping off of my soapbox for now.
I visited Yellowstone National Park this summer and try to go there every other year. In 1988, I was saddened to see firsthand the effect the big fires had on the land. The fires burned nearly 800,000 acres – more than a third of the park property. After decades of fire suppression, the area was long past due for fire. The fires burned in a patchy sort of way as a fire would do in nature. The National Park Service was criticized at the time for not putting out all of the fires but fires are a part of the cycle of nature.
I knew the park plants would regenerate eventually and that the habitats would end up being a mosaic rather than a monoculture. Some of the trees in Yellowstone are slow growing so the changes may not be apparent for quite a while. I close this post with a shot-through-the-window-during-a-storm photo from Yellowstone that shows a healthy forest coming back after the fire. Fire equals destruction, but it also equals a new beginning.
Last week I went on a Metolius Preserve hike with the Deschutes Land Trust (DLT). This 1,240 acre preserve is located about ten miles west of Sisters, OR and was acquired by the DLT in 2003.
Ponderosa pine trees dominate the landscape but there are also Douglas fir, grand fir, incense cedar, and western larch trees. The pine trees near the kiosk are spaced about 30-40 feet apart and bunchgrass forms the dominant ground cover. Though the habitat appears natural, the forest has been restored with the help of Pacific Stewardship. The forest has been thinned and prescribed burns will foster an old-growth type of habitat. They have even created snags so that some of the 13 types of woodpeckers that live here find a good place to feed and nest. DLT also planted bunchgrass.
October is a great month to visit the area because the vine maple trees are in full color and the western larch is turning its distinctive golden-yellow color. Western larch, aka tamarack, is an unusual type of conifer tree because they drop their needles in the winter. This region is at the southwestern edge of the larch’s range.
We learned that grand fir competes with western larch in this area so DLT has taken steps to manage it. In December, visitors are encouraged to cut grand fir to use as Christmas trees so the larch can flourish.
One of the first things our guide, DavidMiller, pointed out to us was lichen. Lichens are a partnership between a fungus and an alga and/or cyanobacteria. The lichen he pointed out is Brown-eyed sunshine. Isn’t that a great common name?
We paused at a small lookout dock on the Metolius Preserve hike to look at Lake Creek. We learned about some of the fish in this area. Redband trout are in this area and if they can manage to get all the way to the ocean and then come back, they are then known as steelhead. There are also bull trout here. Kokanee are a landlocked type of salmon and if they go out to sea and come back they are known as sockeye salmon. A lot of effort has gone into making sure some of the kokanee can make it back. They are trucked around two dams. It is hoped that Chinook salmon will one day be a major player here.
DLT employed the help of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council to improve the habitat for fish on the preserve. A road and culvert were removed. Plants were put in by the stream in the riparian zone.
Wide variety of plants
We looked at some of the plants near the creek including black hawthorn, mountain alder, ninebark, chokecherry, serviceberry, willow, mock orange, wax currant, Nootka rose, bald hip rose, bittersweet nightshade, and horsetail. We saw lots of bulrush in the streambed.
In drier areas nearby we saw vine maple, Oregon grape, green-leaf manzanita, chinquapin, snowberry, dwarf bilberry, bracken fern, Virginia strawberry, yarrow, trailing blackberry, and Peck’s penstemon. We saw a silky lupine and also a dwarf form of lupine. We saw some pearly everlasting flowers (another one of my favorite common names), round-leaf alumroot, flax, and salsify. There were few flowers left at this time of the year. Dried tarweed plants were on the trail that we walked on.
Fun facts learned on Metolius Preserve hike
Here are a few tidbits I learned about some of these plants on the Metolius Preserve hike:
Ponderosa pine trees don’t get reddish bark until they are around 80 years old.
Snowberry has leaves with distinctly different shapes on the same branch.
Serviceberry blooms at a time of year when little else is blooming so they were used in funeral services by early settlers.
Wax currants have a fungal growth that may spread to conifer trees so for a while foresters tried to eradicate them.
The bulrush plant was the one supposedly used to make a cradle for the infant Moses.
Silky lupine plants have incredibly soft leaves that are covered with many “hairs”.
Tarweed was applied by Native Americans to their skin as a way to disguise their scent when they were hunting. To me it REALLY smelled like marijuana at this time of year.