image of a floodplain restoration project

McKenzie River Trust is working on the Finn Rock Reach restoration project.

Brent Ross / McKenzie River Trust

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How can a region scarred by fire welcome back wildlife and biodiversity? The Finn Rock Reach restoration project is an effort to rehabilitate an area of the McKenzie River that was scorched by the Holiday Farm Fire and has been affected by human interference. Joe Moll is the executive director of the McKenzie River Trust. He shares details about the project and how the restoration work can benefit the region.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We end today with a restoration project on the McKenzie River. It’s in a place called Finn Rock Reach. Over the course of five years, the McKenzie River Trust worked with a number of partners to improve salmon habitat along an 85 acre floodplain there. But the leaders of this project point out that it won’t just make life better for Chinook and Steelhead. They say it will also improve the quality of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians and make the watershed more resilient in the face of accelerating climate change. Joe Moll is the Executive Director of the McKenzie River Trust. He joins us to talk about all of this. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Joe Moll: Thanks Dave, it’s great to be here.

Miller: It’s great to have you on. So before we talk about the work you did to change this particular patch of the Willamette River Watershed, let’s take a big step back. Can you give us a sense for what rivers like the Willamette and its tributaries were like over the course of any given year before European colonization?

Moll: That is a big lift. Our baseline for what a river is today is so different from what early colonists experienced or what the native peoples in our area, the Californian people experienced. If I think back to my Kindergarten and I remember the first description of the Nile River and its seasonal expansion, well beyond its regular channel and the fact that those channels shifted year to year. When you think of that, you think of the Willamette system having something very similar, channels moved from place to place in years, water levels change, people have to shift. Early attempts to build in some of our cities were thwarted by frequent flooding. It was just a very dynamic system.

Miller: And now, it is a pretty deep channel that is hemmed in in one place with rip rap and huge rocks and on either side, the whole length of it, it seems, except for very few places here and there. There are farms and hops growing and cows living their lives and people’s homes and the river stays exactly where it is. Is that a fair way to put it?

Moll: For the most part, yeah, we have greatly simplified the system, and we’ve even developed our own sort of aesthetics around the beauty of this thread of a river and it’s undeniably beautiful. But we do get reminders even with dams in the headwaters of the rivers, which tamp many of those historic floods down. And as you describe, the hard infrastructure that we’ve created, we still get reminders on a seasonal basis, especially in some years, that the river still holds sway and it will flood some of these areas. And the difference now is that what had been perhaps a great wetting, we’ll call it, now can be really destructive because when you take something that’s been confined and run water through it and that confinement gets abruptly lost, that power goes somewhere. And so the destructive power of floods has increased over time.

Miller: So let’s turn to the habitat of the salmon and Steelhead. What did the much more meandering, braided river mean for salmon and Steelhead?

Moll: In the Northwest, we think of ourselves as a salmon people and throughout the year, different things going on. Now, we tend to think of two things. We think of spawning in the headwaters and we think of their ocean life and somehow salmon just move between those two life stages. It would be the equivalent of sending our kids at age six, to college. We miss elementary school, middle school, high school, all of that rearing, nurturing growth stage. And when you lose floodplain habitat for not just salmon, but for all of the native fish and wildlife, you lose that rearing stage. And that’s one of the things that we’ve been trying to do and recognizes where we have the opportunity to give the river back some of that ability to move and shift. And as a part of that, that just cascades positively through the available habitats throughout the year for all of our native fish and wildlife species.

Miller: What is it about the habitat you’re talking about that makes it the equivalent of a good place to send your salmon for seventh grade?

Moll: So, for listeners in the Portland area, if you’re ever out on the Tilikum Bridge, especially in the early spring, say March, April, understand there’re adult salmon, four or five years old, Chinook, coming back from the ocean, coming upstream. And they’re going to wait until this time of year, September, until when they spawn, their offspring emerge in January, and so as they come out, they’re tiny, and they’re tiny at a time when the rivers are starting to swell again. So if it’s a channelized system, they get swept downstream, they’re very vulnerable. They don’t have much access to food. Whereas a connected floodplain, it’s a smorgasbord, it’s all sorts of food. Are there’re places to hide. It allows them to grow. So that by the time later in the year or a year later they do reach the ocean, they’ve matured and they’re going to have much greater survivorship out in the ocean.

Miller: So let’s turn to this particular patch of the McKenzie River, a Floodplain known as Finn Rock Reach, 85 acres of which you restored. What was it like when you purchased it from a timber company back in 2015?

Moll: On one hand, it was spectacular. When we first walked down to one of the side channels, one of the few side channels, there were adult Chinook Salmon spawning right there. And we immediately sort of entered our own rhetoric that this is fantastic, it needs to be protected, it needs to be preserved as is. Over the course of the years, especially working with U. S. Forest Service Fisheries Biologists, they helped us see that it’s okay. But it could be so much better. You’re looking at such a small piece of what used to be here. Let’s open this up. Let’s work together and bring back some of that complexity. Some of those additional side channels. Bring back a lot of the wood that used to be in this system. And give the river that complexity, not only in its span, the breadth of the floodplain, but in its depth, not just the depth of the water, but you think of the spiraling Mayflies going up into the canopies of trees. Really think about the depth of the river in that sense as well.

Miller: So what did the work entail to rebraid, recomplexify this patch of river?

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Moll: It was quite shocking, I think, for people driving by right in view of McKenzie Highway, we had a heavy machinery out there moving dirt around unplugging places that had been plugged up, taking out roadways that had been built in digging down in some cases to areas so that the water table could be reconnected, tipping over trees that had been burned up in the fire, bringing other logs and root wads and trees in and burying them halfway into the earth, burn instructions.

Miller: What’s the idea behind all that wood, burned or otherwise? Why put all that wood in the water?

Moll: That’s another thing that, from a baseline perspective, we don’t really recognize just how choked the river systems were, so to speak with all of the wood that would just naturally accrue. That adds to complexity. When water hits something like a tree that’s in a stream, it cascades over it and it digs down and it creates depths. Those cool, deep water pools are safe areas for small fish, for example. So it’s another element of complexity that the river system has lost. So the wood brings some of that back.

Miller: You know, it’s interesting, I was reminded, and it seems like you’re almost getting to this, but people driving by it might be shocked by seeing all this heavy machinery and what looked like an industrial process going on to actually bring back something closer to a quote unquote ‘natural version’ of the river. I guess it’s one more example that in the Anthropocene, in the so human change world we live in, that it is up to us as humans to do very human things now, in very industrial things, maybe to actually to change things for the better.

Moll: I’ve been doing this work for about 30 years now and I have to say one of the most encouraging things I’m finding now is this whole discussion of what infrastructure is, now really does include recognizing that infrastructure, including the system of the river itself that produces clean water that produces fish and wildlife is just as important from an economic investment standpoint as a roadway is. And to have that not be something that separated out as though that’s just conservation. But to consider especially in our case is integral to this question of how do we reimagine and rebuild a community that was devastated by wildfire a year ago? I find that encouraging.

Miller: How much was this particular area hit by the Holiday Farm Fire?

Moll: It was right in the heart of it, just downstream from the ignition. And so when there were 50 and 60 mile an hour winds blowing the fire through it came right through the heart of this area.

Miller: What was your thought when you first went back?

Moll: I was able to go back within weeks. So things were still burning again. Our own rhetoric of what an incredible place this was with 20 foot diameter or 20 foot circumference cottonwood trees. It took a blow. But we could immediately see sword fern, and other things coming up out of the ground. We recognized, ironically, it exposed some of the history, both the natural history of river migration as well as just how close we’ve chosen to build adjacent to the river. It immediately gave us more of a blueprint. It allowed us to think about, gosh, what do we now have the opportunity to do? So it put us in a get to work mode.

Miller: What are the implications of a project like this in the context of climate change?

Moll: One of the things that we’re seeing, are just wild swings between rainfall, snowfall, drought, heat. The unpredictability of some of those things is happening, just as a metaphor, I mean, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner and a lot of these places and something like this, which expands access to the floodplain again, gives us more of a buffer. A connected floodplain has a higher water table. It holds water during dry seasons longer. It allows for the collection of sediments that otherwise might come screaming down some of these exposed mountain slopes now so that they don’t clog up. They are our drinking water systems. So again, that sense of a buffer giving everything including the smallest Chinook Salmon coming out of the gravels, to someone downstream in Eugene, Springfield, Wilsonville. All of the folks that are drawing water off the Willamette system, it’s a direct impact on their futures.

Miller: We’re talking about if I have my math correct 85 acres at a cost of about $1.5 million over the course of five years, how do you go about doing anything close to a large scale version of this, when the river management that you’re trying to reverse has enabled people to farm and live right next to a highly controlled river?

Moll: The concept of cumulative effects has been something used to describe that ongoing threat that the fact that we have 150 years of construction building, lifestyle, culture that has gotten us to where we are, we’re just doing it in the other direction. I mean the cumulative effects of an 85 acre project here, a 60 acre project there where there are opportunities, we are trying to go in the opposite direction. So it’s a long game. It’s something that we know won’t change overnight. But again, I feel such encouragement right now by the fact that this is something that even being on your show, this is something that’s a part of the broader community discussion. But how do we want this place to be for the next 100 years? What do we want to bequeath to the people that come after us?

Miller: We have just about a minute left. But what’s next for the McKenzie River Trust?

Moll: We’ll continue to work with landowners who are trying to again reimagine and rebuild in this community. There’s a lot of work to do both post fire and in opportunities like this. There are similar projects that will continue in that middle section of the McKenzie River, Middle Fork, Coast Fork, even the main stem, I think people are energized by this sort of work and we just want to be as supportive of people as we can in those efforts.

Miller: Joe Moll, thanks for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Moll: Thank you Dave, I really appreciate your opportunity.

Joe Moll is Executive Director of the McKenzie River Trust. Here’s something we’re working on for a show next week. We want to know if the pandemic has made you think differently about retirement, will you have to work longer? Did you leave the workforce before you felt ready to retire? Has the pandemic shifted your retirement priorities or thinking? You can leave us a voicemail right now at 503-293-1983. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, We’ll be back tomorrow. Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliver, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust and Ray and Marilyn Johnson.

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