LOWER ELWHA (November 19, 2008) – The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s habitat restoration crew is midway through its effort to build 50 engineered logjams on the Elwha River before two fish-blocking dams start coming down in 2012.
For the five-man crew, building 18-foot-tall structures out of 50-foot logs and thousands of pounds of gravel is just another day at the “office” – an office that spans the rivers, creeks, forests and fields around the reservation near Port Angeles.
Formed in 1994, the crew has completed more than 40 projects valued at $10 million in just about every river and creek in the tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing area, mainly between the Hoko River and Seibert Creek. Projects have included livestock exclusion, correction of fish passage barriers, riparian revegetation, placement of large wood, road abandonment and other watershed restoration practices.
Lately, most of the work deals with preparation for the removal of the river’s Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.
BRINGING ON A CREW
In the mid-1990s, as the tribe was starting river restoration projects, Mike McHenry, then the tribe’s habitat biologist (now manager), had the forethought to hire a crew instead of contracting each project.
The first foreman, hired in 1994, was Les Pooler. He had long worked in logging and construction on the Olympic Peninsula, and had just lost his logging job due to changes in the timber industry brought about by reductions in federal harvest, overharvest on state and private lands and increases in harvest efficiency. These changes (and similar reductions in the fishing industry) displaced many loggers and fishermen with the skills McHenry sought for the tribal crew. The tribe hired them through a state jobs program.
The tribe was embarking on its first major effort – restoring the Little Hoko River. For the next four years, the crew worked in the lower 3.5 miles of the river, doing livestock control with fencing, riparian reforestation, wood debris installation, road abandonments and habitat enhancement.
“It was a huge success as far as I was concerned, for our first project,” Pooler said. “There were no fish in the Little Hoko when we started. After the project was completed, fish started coming back and now there’s steelhead, coho, chum, and even small numbers of chinook.”
When Pooler retired in 2001, he was succeeded by tribal member Jim Bolstrom, one of the displaced fishermen hired in 1994.
“Jim brings a lot of good work experience to the table,” McHenry said. “He’s a natural leader. I appreciate how he handles the crew and everything else – very steady and doesn’t stress out too bad – even when everyone else is.”
Bolstrom, a quiet leader, favors logjam projects. “They’re beneficial to fish and it’s fun to use the heavy equipment – like playing with the big toys,” he said with a grin.
A lifelong reservation resident, he’d worked in various jobs before joining the restoration crew, including commercial fishing and longshoring.
“I thought the job would last a year or two but I’m glad it’s still going,” Bolstrom said. “I just enjoy the job – working in the river, working in the outdoors. I could never work in an office.”
Tribal members Roger Hopie, Keith Charles and Allen “Duke” Charles are the other full-time crew members; Pooler (though officially retired) still helps on projects occasionally in the summer. They consider themselves lucky to work in the fresh air, with a great boss and helping restore the area to its historically natural state.
“It’s just like you’re a young boy again playing in the streams but you get paid for it,” Pooler said. “It’s rewarding because you get to see what takes place afterwards. You get to see fish coming back and I have seen the fish come back, so I’m pretty firm believer in it.”
This fall, everyone pitched in to build five engineered logjams and remove a 400-foot-long dike in a side channel of the Elwha River. Engineered logjams help prevent sediment scouring, create spawning sites for fish and create refuge areas for both adult and juvenile fish.
“These engineered logjams will help create conditions that will be favorable for the river and for the fish populations prior to dam removal,” McHenry said. “Our goal is to get as many of these in before dam removal.”
Besides using excavators to dig large holes and move material for their projects, the crew relies on a surplus U.S. Army dump truck lovingly dubbed “G.I. Joe.” Asked about the truck, crew members looked at each other, then burst out laughing.
“Oh, I could tell stories about that truck,” Hopie said, suggesting with his distinctive chuckle that G.I. Joe has been known to pull up to 30,000 pounds.
“These guys saw it and thought we may have a use for it,” McHenry said, shaking his head. “Next thing I know, I’m buying tires for it and they’re definitely using it.”
A member of the crew for 12 years, excavator operator Hopie knows his way around the heavy duty yellow earthmovers. He sees the work as more than just a job.
“It creates the habitat and pools and everything the fish need,” he said. “We check our projects from years past and everything is working like it should. That’s the best part of the whole job – seeing the results.”
WORK PAYS OFF
At a glance, a logjam looks like a mess of 8-foot-tall piles of logs and rootwads strategically placed on the river bed. But the foundation is about 10 feet below the river bed surface, ensuring that it won’t be washed out by major floods.
These logjams incorporate large rootwads that are placed strategically in the water to slow down the velocity and create shallow pools that fish need for resting and feeding. This technique has become common in western Washington; it also has been used in the Quinault, Nooksack and Dungeness rivers. The fish most prominent in the Elwha River are chinook, coho and chum salmon, steelhead and trout; Chinook are listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Alan “Duke” Charles, the newest member of the crew, is happy to be working alongside fellow tribal members after working other jobs in Seattle and Port Angeles.
“I’ve seen the fish population really slow down from when we were kids because there were a lot of fish when we were young,” he said. “Right now, there’s hardly any fish in the river, so jobs like building these logjams will hopefully bring them back.”
Keith Charles, a highly energized worker, also enjoys seeing results.
“I see a lot of potential of the things we’ve done and the jams we’ve done and the monitoring we’re doing,” he said. “They’re doing what they’re meant to do, which helps out the fish a lot.”
For more information, contact: Mike McHenry, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe habitat program manager, at (360) 457-4012 ext. 14 or [email protected]; or Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission information officer, at (360) 297-6564 or [email protected].