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Logs, Streams and Resilience: The Yakama Nation’s Wood Fiesta of 2018 – An Interview with Scott Nicolai

On Washington’s dry and beautiful Eastern Cascade slope, the Yakama Nation’s Fisheries Department is leading innovative work to restore healthy streams, the treaty-reserved salmon that depend on them, and the floodplains that protect both natural and human communities.

A high flying habitat restoration project is underway in Washington’s Yakima Basin, with a heavy helicopter delivering logs to the streambeds and flood plains of seven Yakima River tributaries. The Yakama Nation and partners are contributing to more climate- and fire-resilient forests in an area plagued by catastrophic fire and its impacts on water.

This year’s big project was dubbed Wood Fiesta, and it showcases these cost-effective, multi-benefit strategies. We learned more in an October interview with Yakama Nation fisheries biologist Scott Nicolai.

In this time of massive wildfires, the Nation is showing how our western forests can be a lot healthier.

We started to realize that simply bringing wood back into the stream systems seemed to bring a lot of the benefits, without the expense and the engineering


How did you “wood in streams” work get started?

Over 30 years ago we started recognizing the importance of wood in streams for stream, forest and fish health. Ten years ago we started getting much more aggressive with wood placement, getting loose wood into publicly owned floodplains. We were seeing these very expensive, highly engineered structures; we started to realize that simply bringing wood back into the system seemed to bring a lot of the benefits, without the expense and the engineering.

In 2008-2010 we tried this at a larger scale at Taneum Creek, where we loaded lots of wood into the stream. Then we had the flood of record, just huge water, estimated at 2500 cfs, in a watershed that is approximately 75 square miles.

When we finally got back up to the site, holy cow. There were side channels everywhere. The wood had mostly stayed where it was placed.  Floodwater energy in the stream was reduced where wood was placed, which trapped gravels.  The floodplains are now much wetter than before. Places dominated by the invasive, exotic knapweed were colonized by willow and cottonwood and rushes and sedges. No one planted those natives, but they came back on their own.

It’s funny because when I was much younger, I had a job removing wood from the streams, walking up and down clearcuts taking wood out of the streams – and now I’m doing the opposite!

What benefits are you hoping to see?

We are giving cold-water streams what is needed, so the watershed restores itself during periods of flooding.  We want to see pulses of high water to move these incised channels, deposit sediment, and connect streams to adjacent floodplains. Through that, we should see groundwater recharge with the cold water that is so essential for salmonids, since floodwaters are cold waters.

The second benefit for the project is able to thin publicly owned forest in ways that folks believe is very good for climate resilience and fire. Most of the wood for this project came from thinning publicly owned forests, and we also bought some wood from The Nature Conservancy who has acquired some very overgrown forests in the area.

How is the well-being of salmon connected to smart interventions for the woods and water in the time of climate change?

Cold water fish are in a world of hurt because of the warming climate, and to address that we need thermal refugia. The Yakima basin has a lot of that, but it has been compromised by logging, grazing, and channel straightening. The same things that have not been good for the woods.

When we recharge the groundwater, though, the floodplains keep cold water, and the streams stay colder too, as well as warmer in winter because groundwater is a more constant temperature. We are also creating good beaver habitat and that strengthens all these effects.

Scott has worked as a habitat biologist for over 25 years for the Yakama Nation. His expertise is in stream and floodplain restoration, public speaking, grant writing and green building techniques. Scott holds a master’s degree in Environmental Studies and bachelor’s degrees in biology and Science Education.

Photo Credit: Yakima Nation Fisheries

October, 2018

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