SEASIDE — They call themselves the “beaver believers.”
Those who are restoring the Thompson Falls wetland west of Nygaard Road near Stanley Marsh believe beavers are the key to the future that will unlock the past.
And, after only a few weeks, the “believers” are being proven right.
“I saw the first sign of beavers two weeks ago,” said Austin Tomlinson, who does soil and water conservation and restoration. “Come spring, I’m hoping they will take off” and colonize the site.
Developer Casey Corkrey took on the project to restore four acres of the Thompson Falls wetland to compensate for a project he plans to build on a wetland at the junction of U.S. Highways 101 and 26 between Seaside and Cannon Beach.
The project at the junction will include storage units, warehouses and some retail space, Corkrey said.
To obtain a permit to fill in a wetland area for development, the Oregon Department of State Lands requires that developers find ways to avoid or reduce the impact on wetlands. If that isn’t possible, the state will allow restoration of a substitute wetland, stream or other water resource that is comparable to the impacted wetland.
Owned by the North Coast Land Conservancy, the parcel, totaling 80 acres, already has an upper creek with beavers actively building dams. But the lower portion of the land once was a horse pasture and a farm. According to rumor, actors Tab Hunter and Adam “Batman” West owned the property many years ago.
The historical wetland had been drained, and a creek that once ran through the field was diverted to an area around the field’s edge, Tomlinson said. The creek was kept within a berm.
But after three years of seeking permission from the state and from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and receiving advice from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Corkrey finally was able to begin work on what some call the “cutting edge” in sustainable mitigation projects.
His goal: to bring back the Sitka spruce forest that covered the area more than 300 years ago.
“If you think about the endangered species on the North Coast – the salmon, marbled murrelet and the owls – they all would have lived in a spruce forest,” Tomlinson said.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of species depend on spruce forest swamps, said Doug Ray, a professional watershed restoration consultant who also is assisting with the project.
Yet a Sitka spruce swamp is “globally rare,” he added. Less than 2 percent of historic Sitka spruce swamps in the world exist today, according to Ray.
“Every place you see green pasture grass, there used to be a Sitka spruce swamp,” Ray said.
Sitka spruce trees depend on water – lots of water – to survive. That’s where the beavers come in. The dams they build create pools and force water to flood the pasture, providing a habitat for the 400 spruce trees that were gathered from land owned by Longview Timber.
The alder and willow trees that beavers munch on eventually will fall; the tree trunks provide shady alcoves for spawning and juvenile salmon.
Historically, the spruce forests would be killed every 300 to 500 years when a tsunami washed over them. The dead trees acted as nurse logs for the young seedlings sprouting later.
But the cycle was interrupted when the pasture was created. As part of the “beaver believer” project, excavators removed earth and created mounds to restart the growing process.
“We were able to pull back the berm that kept the water in while still keeping salmon-rearing ponds. It has been changing every day with the rain,” said Tomlinson, looking out over the wandering stream and wide pools containing woody debris for the beavers.
After the shallow grading of the field was completed, “logjams” were strategically placed in the excavated areas to encourage beavers to begin their construction process.
By using beavers to do most of the work instead of using the usual excavation and restoration techniques for wetlands mitigation, Ray estimated that the project cost was reduced by $60,000 to $80,000.
Without financial support from Corkrey, who is paying for the project, and the help of volunteers from the land conservancy and Tualatin Valley Trout Unlimited who have planted thousands of willow seedlings on the site and cleared invasive reed canary grass, the project would have taken much longer, said Celeste Lebo, stewardship director for the North Coast Land Conservancy.
“Without Casey’s generosity and Doug’s amazing creativity, it might have cost maybe $200,000,” Lebo said. “We would have had to apply for grants, which are very competitive, and it would have taken a lot more time.”
The beavers, she added, will do what they normally do: create water places for animals to exist.
“We’re all beaver believers, of course,” Lebo said. “They can restore the land a lot better than we do.”
Those at the conservancy worried that, without enough habitat to support them, the young beavers on the upper creek would leave, and the chance to restore the pasture to the former wetland would be lost, Lebo said.
“Beavers are considered the biological engineers of the ecological system,” she said. “Studies have compared a pool built by a beaver den and a pool built by a human restoration group, and there is a huge, significant difference in the number of fish in the beaver pool,” Lebo said. “Whatever they do, they do much better than humans.”
Not everyone, however, is a “beaver believer.” Dave Langlo who lives on North Wahanna Road and 14th Street just west of the wetland, has already seen increased flooding on his property during heavy rains.
When he first moved to his property 35 years ago, he said, there was a tide gate on the culvert leading to the Necanicum River near the Pizza Palace restaurant. During heavy rains, his property was flooded every year.
Eventually, the tide gate was removed, and the water had an easy flow to the river, and Langlo’s property wasn’t flooded any longer, he said.
“Now the North Coast Land Conservancy is putting things in to slow the water. Beavers build dams, which will hold back the water,” Langlo said. “I’m not against their project, but the water cannot get out, and during heavy rains, they will have too much water.”
In the past 15 years, Langlo said he had only one flood. But several times this past year, since the project began, he has seen much more water in his yard. His house, however, is elevated above the yard and isn’t affected.
“They say it will enhance the salmon, but I’ve had salmon in my pond for 35 years. The salmon have been here all along,” Langlo said. “There are ducks and geese – all kinds of critters in my pond.”
He also worries about potential flooding in the year-round RV campground adjacent to the project.
Langlo is trying to reactivate the local drainage district board to oppose the project. “I would order all of the beavers and their dams out,” he said.
But Ray said the project actually will increase the area’s flood storage capacity.
“The landscape will be restored, there will be increased flood storage and there will be aesthetic value for the neighborhood. It’s all good,” Ray said.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.