Tom Birkmaier is a fourth generation rancher with a home farm along Crow Creek. He is the great-grandson of the late Alvin McFettridge who ran sheep and cattle on Chesnimnus Creek and Joseph Creek and is the grandson of the late Ed Birkmaier, who came to the county as a district ranger for the US Forest Service in the Chesnimnus area. Ed Birkmaier went on to serve as Assistant Chief of Range Management for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s. Tom's parents, Mack and Marian, were named Stockgrower's Ranchers of the Year in 1992.

In response to the article "50 years of work pay off for water quality" in the Sept. 24 Chieftain, I want to address some important points not mentioned in the article.

The first point, a quote of myself stating: "Fish populations have declined to a third of what they were":

That quote is true. The part left out, however, is that the fishing has declined during the past 25 years of intense stream and riparian rehabilitation.

Obviously, I'm not a fish biologist or hydrologist and my experience only really includes Elk Creek, Crow Creek, Swamp Creek, Chesnimnus Creek and Joseph Creek - but I do consider myself an 'observationist' on the changes that have occurred in these watersheds.

In the early 1980s, when the Elk Creek Restoration project began with the riparian fencing, exclosures, log weirs, stream structures and intense plantings, the fishing in these streams was fantastic. The banks were void of many small deciduous shrubs but were shaded and protected by Hawthorn, larger Alder and many conifers.

Throughout the late 1940s, 50s, 60s and even up until the early 1980s, my father flood irrigated about ten acres of farmland out of Elk Creek. today one would struggle to irrigate a garden with its meager flow.

Currently, throughout the summer months, Elk Creek could be contained in its entire flow in a five-inch culvert. Also, he and many others remember seeing hundreds of steelhead spawning in its gravel bars. And remember, all of this was previous to the plantings, shading, fencing and etc. The livestock were grazing the streams, even rather intensely as they had been for the past 200 years when our Native American brothers and the early pioneers were just trying to survive on these lands.

Since then, we have dramatically changed our streams by shading, stabilizing and providing structure to our riparian systems. Nearly all of the 12 miles of Elk Creek is riparian fenced: there are thousands of English willows, Cottonwoods, Dogwoods and Aspens that line its banks. In addition, there are hundreds of wire gabion and log structures to create pools and wire panels to protect young plantings. We do know that reduced or excluded grazing, coupled with shrubs and numerous grasses along a stream leads to silt entrapment and higher water tables. This we are seeing, but at the same time aren't we losing the 'cobbled bottoms' that inarguably are essential spawning habitat for steelhead?

As we look back over the past 25 years, we can't help but wonder if we're heading in the right direction. Instead of seeing improvements from our actions, we are seeing less fish, reduced stream flow, and in some cases, warmer waters.

Also, we're seeing decadent, matted and decaying riparian grasses caused from lack of grazing. This component, added to the brush and small conifers, could we be setting ourselves up for a catastrophic fire event through our riparian systems? Furthermore, are we adequately addressing the increased impact of our uplands, where the livestock has been forced to relocate?

In my opinion, these systems may be more vulnerable than the riparians due to their fragile, drier and steeper-sloped soils.

??The second point: The article referred to the huge temperature variation I discovered.

As I explained when asked, these were extreme conditions. It was late July, and the air temperature was 105 degrees. The stream was moving extremely slow and the water depth was five or six inches. I explained how this probably didn't represent the drainage as a whole and that there were many beaver ponds and deeper shaded pools up to six feet deep - and that is where the fish survive during these types of conditions.

??The third point: we can't yet prove the effects of our stagnant thickets of white fir and Engelmann Spruce in the upper reaches of these drainages.

Due to reduced logging and thinning, we do know that evapotranspiration is occurring at a remarkable level as these trees are sucking billions of gallons daily for their own survival. Does that possibly explain the reduced temperature fluctuations we are seeing? It is much easier for the air temperature to change the water temperature when the volume of water is dramatically reduced, which has undoubtedly occurred in the afore-mentioned drainages.

Without question, the landowner/rancher has been the most important part of the riparian and water quality restoration movement. We have provided our most valuable bottomland to be managed by agencies to bring structure to our riparians and quality to our water. We have had to reduce grazing numbers in these areas because this most productive land is now unavailable due to fencing.

Yes, this has had an impact on our bottom line. Constantly moving and managing has affected the rancher's bottom line. This said, I am not complaining. I/we are pleased to cooperate for the improvement of the ecosystem. But, where are the increase in stream flows and the decrease in temperature?

? Oh, and I almost forgot - where are the fish?

Don Butcher, Basin Coordinator for Lower Grande Ronde and Tributaries for the Department of Environmental Quality was able to reply briefly and generally to some parts of Mr. Birkmaier's questions. Ideally, he said, Oregon Department of Forestry, US Forest Service, the Tribes or others more familiar with the area would respond more fully to specific questions.

First point:

"Are we adequately addressing the increased impact of our uplands, where the livestock has been forced to relocate?"

I think most would agree that uplands are important as well as riparian zones, and that where cattle grazing has been excluded, invasive plants, often non-native have filled the gap. The thrust of many restoration programs is to address uplands as well as riparian zones, in order to benefit upland species, but also because upland restoration decreases soil loss and other stream impacts if grazing is managed with that end in mind. For instance, a recent annual research reports "we found that high-density short-duration grazing resulted in two to three times more riparian vegetation, twice terrestrial invertebrates (bugs) falling into streams, three to five times more terrestrial invertebrate biomass in trout diets, and also twice the trout biomass (living weight of fish), compared to traditional season-long grazing."

Second Point: Re: the huge temperature variation in one stream during summer.

Oregon water quality standards for temperature affirm Mr. Birkmaier's second point. High temperatures are not considered at odds with standards when air temperature is exceptionally warm or stream flow is exceptionally low. That said, intact riparian and channel conditions, with healthy stream flow, can decrease the severity of the situation.

Third Point: Are stagnant thickets reducing instream flow?

Restoration means little to fish without instream flow, which does beg the question: "does increased streamside vegetation cause flow reduction due to water uptake and evaporation?"

Studies have confirmed that substantial stream water can be removed through evapotranspiration. On the other hand, vegetation can minimize the seasonal highs and lows of instream flow, due to a buffering effect and sponginess of riparian zones. Farm crops also evapotranspirate water that comes from streams. Flood irrigation returns some of that as cool subsurface flow, or warm surface flow, but also depletes stream-flow by withdrawing water in the growing season, including July and August when streams are most sensitive to heating due to low flow and summer warmth. How does this all balance out? Generally, in my experience, the natural resource community, including landowners and growers, operate on the principle that riparian vegetation provides a host of essential benefits, such as food, cover, shade and channel stability that can offset some instream flow reduction.

Regarding the final point: "Where are the fish?"

Once fish populations have been reduced, it can take years for them to return. A fully mature riparian zone could have vegetation within it that is 100 years old. Current riparian restoration some of the oldest stuff, is about 20 years old. Once stressors, such as straightening or vegetation disturbance, have been reduced and vegetation returns, it can take decades for the channel to resume a more natural form. Also, though generally riparian restoration and/or protection are essential for aquatic habitat and temperature, the latter at any given location can often be a very complicated analysis - but it clearly is a function of climate, and potentially of climate change, diversion, evapotranspiration from natural or unnatural causes and channel and vegetation conditions. Also, certain streams may be targeted for riparian enhancement because they exhibit fish abundance. Areas that have minimal impact can be important to protect as strongholds that help maintain the minimum numbers needed for fish survival in a region. And, some streams are geologically pre-disposed toward cool water due to an abundance of springs. I don't know whether Elk Creek falls in either of these categories. In addition to local restoration there are non-local things that effect fish population, such as dams and ocean conditions - anything outside the basin that could affect fish as they make their way back from the ocean.

By Don Butcher

Don Butcher, Basin Coordinator for Lower Grande Ronde and Tributaries for the Department of Environmental Quality was able to reply briefly and generally to some parts of Mr. Birkmaier's questions. Ideally, he said, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, the tribes or others more familiar with the area would respond more fully to specific questions.

First point:

"Are we adequately addressing the increased impact of our uplands, where the livestock has been forced to relocate?"

I think most would agree that uplands are important as well as riparian zones, and that where cattle grazing has been excluded, invasive plants, often non-native have filled the gap. The thrust of many restoration programs is to address uplands as well as riparian zones, in order to benefit upland species, but also because upland restoration decreases soil loss and other stream impacts if grazing is managed with that end in mind. For instance, a recent annual research reports "we found that high-density short-duration grazing resulted in two to three times more riparian vegetation, twice terrestrial invertebrates (bugs) falling into streams, three to five times more terrestrial invertebrate biomass in trout diets, and also twice the trout biomass (living weight of fish), compared to traditional season-long grazing."

Second Point: Re: the huge temperature variation in one stream during summer.

Oregon water quality standards for temperature affirm Mr. Birkmaier's second point. High temperatures are not considered at odds with standards when air temperature is exceptionally warm or stream flow is exceptionally low. That said, intact riparian and channel conditions, with healthy stream flow, can decrease the severity of the situation.

Third Point: Are stagnant thickets reducing instream flow?

Restoration means little to fish without instream flow, which does beg the question: "does increased streamside vegetation cause flow reduction due to water uptake and evaporation?"

Studies have confirmed that substantial stream water can be removed through evapotranspiration. On the other hand, vegetation can minimize the seasonal highs and lows of instream flow, due to a buffering effect and sponginess of riparian zones. Farm crops also evapotranspirate water that comes from streams. Flood irrigation returns some of that as cool subsurface flow, or warm surface flow, but also depletes stream-flow by withdrawing water in the growing season, including July and August when streams are most sensitive to heating due to low flow and summer warmth. How does this all balance out? Generally, in my experience, the natural resource community, including landowners and growers, operate on the principle that riparian vegetation provides a host of essential benefits, such as food, cover, shade and channel stability that can offset some instream flow reduction.

Regarding the final point: "Where are the fish?"

Once fish populations have been reduced, it can take years for them to return. A fully mature riparian zone could have vegetation within it that is 100 years old. Current riparian restoration of some of the oldest stuff, is about 20 years old. Once stressors, such as straightening or vegetation disturbance, have been reduced and vegetation returns, it can take decades for the channel to resume a more natural form. Also, though generally riparian restoration and/or protection are essential for aquatic habitat and temperature, the latter at any given location can often be a very complicated analysis - but it clearly is a function of climate, and potentially of climate change, diversion, evapotranspiration from natural or unnatural causes and channel and vegetation conditions. Also, certain streams may be targeted for riparian enhancement because they exhibit fish abundance. Areas that have minimal impact can be important to protect as strongholds that help maintain the minimum numbers needed for fish survival in a region. And, some streams are geologically pre-disposed toward cool water due to an abundance of springs. I don't know whether Elk Creek falls in either of these categories. In addition to local restoration there are non-local things that effect fish population, such as dams and ocean conditions - anything outside the basin that could affect fish as they make their way back from the ocean.

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