Another round of restoration on South Fork Smith River

SLC recently completed Phase II of a restoration project that improves forest health and reduces the danger of catastrophic fire on the largest privately owned flat along the South Fork Smith River in Del Norte County, CA.

In January, crews from Ashland, Oregon-based Lomakatsi Restoration Forestry thinned 15 acres of conifers on the 148-acre property, an idyllic landscape dotted with meadows, white oak woodlands and mature redwoods, once a site for clear-cutting now protected by a conservation easement managed by SLC.

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Crews spread the cut material over the forest floor to build the soil, as decomposition in the Big Flat area is accelerated by up to 200 inches of rain per year.

Funding for the restoration effort was provided in large part by a 50 percent grant from the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service. The landowners, the SLC general fund, and SLC contributors and volunteers provided the other half of the cost-share program.

Volunteer Restoration Work on the South Fork Smith River

Many thanks to the Humboldt State University Natural Resources Club for spending the weekend of Sep. 15-16 on the South Fork Smith River property managed by Siskiyou Land Conservancy. Club members (all 18 of them!) cleared nearly a mile of trail along old skid roads to allow restoration crews access to hillside thinning units, and they practiced peeling Douglas fir poles to construct shelters on the site (so that, this winter, restoration crews can get out of the rain on occasion). The Natural Resources Club provides an incredible service to our communities, and it is much appreciated. Thank you!

Greg King, Executive Director

California’s Wildest River Comes to San Francisco

We had a great turnout and a wonderful time during Siskiyou Land Conservancy’s Bay Area presentation about the Smith River. Thanks to Bess and Royce Gallery for offering such a beautiful space in the heart of our “sister city,” San Francisco, and to Joanne Rand for bringing the music of a wild river to a place where the river needs to be heard. Check back for updates on SLC’s Smith River projects, and on all of our work along the California North Coast.

Greg King, Executive Director

The Devastating New Zealand Mudsnail: Is the Smith River Next?

Editor’s note: One of Siskiyou Land Conservancy’s ongoing projects is to research and document the “State of the Smith River.” The Smith River remains the healthiest major river in California. As such, it provides pristine habitat for rare and endangered species throughout much of the watershed.The most significant exception is found at the Smith River estuary, which has been besieged by loss of flood plain and off-channel habitat, simplification due to levees and reduction of riparian cover, and the highest concentrations in California of certain highly toxic pesticides.

Now a new threat has emerged at the Smith River estuary: New Zealand mudsnails. This pernicious exotic species has spread rapidly throughout the American west, devastating the food chain of several streams. Last year Wendell Wood, a wildlands interpreter with Oregon Wild, discovered New Zealand mudsnails in the Smith River estuary.The mudsnails were already well established in nearby Lake Earl, but the Smith River estuary had apparently been spared until recently. The California Department of Fish and Game has yet to survey the Smith River to determine the extent of New Zealand mudsnail distribution, though DFG may do so this summer.

Following is a report by Doug Simpson, Siskiyou Land Conservancy’s intern for estuary research, on mudsnails in North Coast streams.  Simpson recently graduated from Humboldt State University with a major in Natural Resource Planning, emphasizing marine resources and climate.

Growing Concerns Over Invasive New Zealand Mudsnails in Humboldt and Del Norte County Waters

Siskiyou Land Conservancy research intern Doug Simpson seeks New Zealand mud snails in the Smith River estuary, March 2012. Photo by Greg King.

By Doug Simpson

The North Coast of California is blessed with an abundance of natural and scenic splendors. Among my favorite places in California are the lagoons and estuaries located along our coastline.  These brackish environments provide a range of ecological communities where fresh water meets the sea. They provide wonderful recreational opportunities for anglers and kayakers, and they support several important fisheries.

However, as more and more people use these waters – locals and tourists alike – impacts are increasing on pace. One troubling management issue is how to deal with invasive species, which can be directly correlated with higher use. In waterways, aquatic hitch-hikers are proving to be more than just a nuisance – both globally and locally. Many of us have already heard about the invasive Zebra Mussel, which has devastated the Great Lakes and many other areas in the United States. A comparable, but less known invasive is the New Zealand mudsnail. It has appeared only in the last decade in local lagoons and rivers and poses a real threat to fisheries and aquatic ecosystems.

When it comes to mudsnails, it’s not size that counts: it’s tiny. It ranges in size from less than one millimeter to nearly a centimeter, but virtually all Mudsnails found locally will be 2mm or smaller – that’s about the width of a quarter. What is alarming is their ability to propagate in astoundingly high numbers. According to a USGS fact sheet they’ve been reported in densities higher than 300,000 per square meter. In other words the ground can literally be crawling with mudsnails.

New Zealand mud snails have spread rapidly in North America. They were first discovered in the Snake River, in Idaho, in 1987. For about a decade their numbers remained relatively low, as seen in this graphic that shows mud snail distribution in 1995.

The New Zealand mudsnail is most likely to travel across watersheds by hitch-hiking on fishing and boating equipment. It can also travel across and within a watershed via the guts of fishes and birds. Fish and waterfowl will feed on benthic invertebrates such as the New Zealand mudsnail. However, many species can’t digest the mudsnails. Instead they travel through the digestive tract intact and are passed in the feces, still alive, sometimes several miles away from where they were originally consumed.

The mudsnail’s indigestibility poses significant problems. One is that they travel much faster and farther than they would otherwise be capable of. The other is that the trout, salmon, duck, or other species that eat the mudsnails often glean very little nutritional value from

them. If mudsnails begin to overwhelm and push out other native macro-benthic invertebrates, as they have been recorded to do, this could pose a serious threat for the many species of waterfowl and fish that feed on small bottom dwelling snails.

New Zealand mud snail distribution, 2001.

The chemical and physical conditions that Northern California has to offer seem to be ideal for the mudsnails. They originated from New Zealand, whose climate is similar to our own. Keith Bensen, resource manager for Redwood National Park, is seriously alarmed at the presence of the mudsnail. Currently, Bensen is

New Zealand mud snail distribution, 2009.

monitoring the speed and densities of the mudsnail’s spread in known present locations, as well as areas that they expect the mudsnail may spread to. Big Lagoon and Stone Lagoon may harbor the largest population of mudsnails in our area. Evidence of their hitch-hiking style can be seen in their proximity to boat ramps and popular fishing areas. I recently circumnavigated Stone Lagoon in a kayak, and I found the mudsnails everywhere I looked. They are also in Redwood Creek, Lake Earl, the Smith River and undoubtedly waiting to be discovered in many other local waterways.

Studies by Dybdahl and Kane in 2005 have shown that mudsnails can tolerate a wide range of conditions. They thrive in disturbed watersheds with high nutrient flows. They can tolerate high water levels by finding shelter under rocks and in eddies. They can grow and reproduce in salinities as high as 15 parts per thousand, but can tolerate salinity as high as 30 parts per thousand for short periods. (The ocean is 33 parts per thousand.) That means they can live in the bilges of ocean-going boats long enough to get dumped into a storm drain and potentially invade a whole new watershed. They also reproduce sexually and asexually, so all you need is one to soon have an entire population.

The U.S. west coast population of New Zealand mudsnails seems to have originated from Idaho – presumably from an angler having traveled from New Zealand, or perhaps from the dumped remains of someone’s aquarium. The entire North American population of mudsnails is clonal, consisting of genetically identical females. One female snail can produce 230 young per year, and it reaches sexual maturity at around 3.5mm, which is usually about 8 months of age. If one hitch-hiking mudsnail lands in a new spot conducive to growth and has 230 young, and each of those young reproduce, within one year that same spot could have a population of more than 50,000.

New Zealand mudsnails reproduce to such high densities that they push out other macro-invertebrates and begin to dominate the food chain level called “secondary production.” A study led by Robert Hall junior found that mudsnails have the highest secondary production rate of all benthic invertebrates. In this way they threaten to become a dominant part of fish and bird diets, which, combined with accompanying low nutrient values, could devastate native populations and completely alter the processes of an ecosystem. Trout have been known to starve on a mudsnail diet.

Preventing the spread of New Zealand mudsnails is essential. This is done primarily through protocols established for use of waterways. After use in the water, all fishing and sporting equipment should be decontaminated. If possible, the same set of gear should be dedicated to a single location. After use, gear should be cleaned with a scrub brush and water, preferably high-pressure. Inspect gear – it should be free of any visible traces of sand, mud, gravel, or plant fragments. In addition to rinsing and scrubbing, there are two follow-up treatments to decontaminate gear. One involves a chemical treatment of what is known as quaternary ammonium compounds. Formula 409® cleaner degreaser disinfectant in a 50% dilution has been proven to kill Mudsnails. Gear should be soaked in the solution for 5 minutes and then rinsed thoroughly with tap water. (This method should only be used where the chemical solution will not run-off into a water body). The second treatment is to expose mudsnails to intolerant physical conditions, including:

1)    Freezing gear for a minimum of 4 hours.

2)    Soaking gear in hot bath water (minimum 120°F) for 10 minutes.

3)    Drying gear before reusing. Gear must be dry for at least 48 hours with low humidity. Places like pockets and boots stay damp longer and may need longer to dry.

The New Zealand mudsnail is an incredibly tolerant and proliferative invasive species. It hasn’t been seen on the North Coast for long, and solutions to its spread, and safe means of eradication will not be easy to develop. But our fragile and often pristine North Coast ecosystems demand that we take up the challenge.

SLC’s Coho Recovery Plan comments

Below is a link to Siskiyou Land Conservancy’s comments on the National Marine Fisheries Service draft of the Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast  (“SONCC”) Coho Salmon Recovery Plan. Although the SONCC Coho were listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1997, NMFS is only just now completing a draft of a Recovery Plan for the species, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act.

SLC_Coho_Recovery_Comments

Siskiyou Land Conservancy’s comments focus solely on the Smith River. Although the Smith is California’s most pristine major river, even here Coho are listed in the Recovery Plan as a “high extinction risk.” This is due in part to an overall decline of the entire SONCC population of Coho, but also in large part to destruction of Coho habitat at the Smith River estuary, and at Rowdy Creek, one of the two most important Coho spawning streams on the Smith. (The other major Coho tributary on the Smith River is Mill Creek, which also experienced widespread logging and therefore alteration of spawning habitat. But the lowermost reach of Mill Creek is protected by Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and much of the upper reach is undergoing intensive restoration work led by the Smith River Alliance in partnership with State Parks, the state Department of Fish and Game (DFG), the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) and Save-the-Redwoods League.)

In large part, our comments focus on the Smith River estuary, where, as noted in the Recovery Plan, habitat destruction and simplification, and excessive pesticide use on surrounding Easter lily farms, pose the greatest threat to survival of Coho salmon in the Smith River.

SLC’s comments also emphasize the need to address continued clear-cut logging and herbicide applications by Green Diamond Resource Co. on Rowdy Creek, which runs through the Smith River estuary. The SONCC Coho Recovery Plan contained only one paragraph on Green Diamond’s ownership in the Smith River basin, a “punt” to the wholly inadequate Aquatic Habitat Conservation Plan devised by the company.

Please feel free to comment on this paper. We appreciate your input.

Greg King, Executive Director

What Will It Take to Save the Coho?

Siskiyou Land Conservancy an Important Contributor to the Coho Salmon Recovery Plan

Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)

UPDATE (March 1, 2012): NMFS has extended the Coho Recovery Plan comment period to May 4, 2012. Keep checking this site for updates.

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In early January the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released its long awaited draft Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast (SONCC) Coho Recovery Plan. Though we’ve hardly had a chance to penetrate the 1,400-page document, the first meeting is coming right up:

January 31 – Humboldt Area Foundation 5-8:30 p.m. 373 Indianola Rd. (between Arcata and Eureka)

We have asked NMFS to hold future meetings in Arcata or Eureka proper.

We encourage supporters of North Coast salmonids to attend this meeting, or one of the following:

February 1 – Willits
February 2 – Brookings
February 14 – Yreka
February 15 – Medford area (Central Point)

For more information on these meetings contact Julie Weeder at NMFS: 707-825-5168 or julie.weeder@noaa.gov.

The entire Recovery Plan can be viewed here.

As most of you know, Siskiyou Land Conservancy serves five counties in Northwestern California (Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino, Trinity and Siskiyou), representing some of the most important remaining Coho habitat in the West. In this region, the best remaining salmonid habitat by far is on the Smith River. In fact, the Smith River is the most pristine watershed its size on the West Coast of the United States.

However, what the Smith River chapter of the Coho Recovery Plan makes clear is that Coho numbers are plummeting on the Smith as well, veering toward extinction. The Recovery Plan lists the Smith River’s Coho salmon population as a “high extinction risk.” This despite the fact that the majority of the 719-square-mile watershed is in excellent condition, relative to other western streams. Where the Smith’s salmonid habitat is not excellent, according to the Recovery Plan, is at the estuary. And it’s the estuary that Coho salmon love the most. They spend a whole year in fresh water before migrating to sea, so they need the calm pools and abundant food production of an estuary.

The Coho Recovery Plan utilizes information generated by Siskiyou Land Conservancy, and its predecessor the Smith River Project, to illustrate one of the greatest potential threats to the Smith River estuary: Pesticides used to produce 90 percent of the U.S. production of Easter lilies.

The Recovery Plan also makes clear that Rowdy Creek, which feeds the Smith River estuary, is one of the two best remaining Coho streams on the Smith, yet Coho numbers are far lower on Rowdy Creek than they should be. The Recovery Plan offers just one paragraph on an elephant in the Rowdy Creek room: the timber giant Green Diamond owns almost all of the best Coho habitat in the watershed.

Siskiyou Land Conservancy is developing comments on the Coho Recovery Plan, which we will post here. Our supporters should try to comment as well, asking for reductions of pesticides on lily fields surrounding the estuary, and greater scrutiny of the clear-cutting and road building by Green Diamond that have diminished and eliminated Coho salmon habitat. (Green Diamond also uses pesticides in the watershed.)

Siskiyou Land Conservancy’s Contribution to the Coho Recovery Plan

Since 2004, and on a limited budget, Siskiyou Land Conservancy has been the only NGO, indeed the only organization of any kind to insist on a review and reduction of impacts to the estuary potentially wrought by pesticides.

The Recovery Plan notes that “restoration of the Smith River estuary … is imperative. … Agricultural run-off needs to be addressed to reduce the concentration levels of pesticides reaching the Smith River and its tributaries. … Of particular concern is the lily farming that occurs on the floodplain. One study showed that intense use of pesticides between 1996 and 2000 by lily farmers led to high levels of chemicals including carbofuran, chlorothalonil, diurin, disulfoton, and pentachloronitrobenzene. [The authors should also have listed metam sodium and 1,3-Dichloropropene. Also, pentachloronitrobenzene is no longer used on the Smith River.] Recent testing in the lower Smith River has revealed copper concentrations that may have acute toxic effects and impair olfaction and reproduction of coho salmon (North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) 2011). The current level of chemical contamination is a high risk for juvenile salmonids (Bailey and Lappe 2002).”

It was our Bailey-Lappe (CETOS) study that initiated scrutiny of pesticides at the estuary, and the “recent testing” noted above came only after several years of continual pressure by Siskiyou Land Conservancy on the State Water Board to conduct the tests. The Water Quality report on the testing, which revealed potentially devastating levels of copper in a stream leading to the Smith River estuary, notes that it was Siskiyou Land Conservancy that requested the analysis.

Siskiyou Land Conservancy supports farmers, lily growers included. If analyses of pesticide use and their effects on the Smith River estuary show a need to transition toward less chemically-intensive agricultural practices, then we are committed to assisting lily growers do so without impacting their livelihoods. Already Siskiyou Land Conservancy has inquired with Congressman Mike Thompson’s office about securing Farm Bill funding to assist with any such transition. Like the lily growers, many of whom can be found on their days off fishing the Smith, we are in this for the long haul. Together we can protect the Smith River’s vital salmonid habitat.

Restoration Wrap on the South Fork Smith River

Siskiyou Land Conservancy Completes Phase I of Forest Health/Fuels Reduction Project

Humboldt State University master's student Vanessa Vasquez loads slash onto a burn pile.

Siskiyou Land Conservancy has completed Phase I of a planned multi-part restoration project to improve forest health and reduce the danger of catastrophic fire on private land along the South Fork Smith River.

Last June, Ashland, Oregon-based Lomakatsi Restoration Forestry completed most of the heavy work to thin and pile conifers and brush on 12 acres of the 148-acre parcel, which is surrounded by the Smith River National Recreation Area. Since then SLC personnel and volunteers have continued piling slash in the restoration area, and we have been busy pruning branches up to six feet on every tree in the project.

Lomakatsi Workforce Director Aaron Nauth measures tree diameters during restoration activities on the South Fork Smith River. Siskiyou Land Conservancy donated the larger boles to local residents for firewood.

Debris from restoration work was piled and burned in the six-acre “north unit” of the restoration project. SLC has opted to scatter the smaller material on six-acre “south unit” to decompose under the heavy rains of the Smith River, which can reach 200 inches per year in the Big Flat area. Decomposing material will provide important soil structure in the recovering forest, and will prevent carbon loading from burning piles. If the material breaks down quickly, as expected, then SLC may opt to maintain the practice throughout the life of the project. Most of the larger material, such as five-foot Douglas fir boles ranging from three to six inches in diameter, were removed from the site and donated to local residents for firewood.

“Before the current owners acquired this property it was held by industrial timber companies that clear-cut much of the landscape, resulting in densely regenerating conifers that are choking out wildlife and forest diversity and compacting and eroding soils,” said Greg King, executive director of Siskiyou Land Conservancy. “We’re really thrilled to be jump-starting the recovery of this forest.”

Thinning the densely packed conifers opened up the forest canopy to allow light to penetrate the forest floor, thereby diversifying plant growth and habitat structure. Added light will also allow the otherwise stifled conifers to grow at a normal rate and improve timber volume.

Siskiyou Land Conservancy holds a conservation easement that protects habitat and water quality on the property. The South Fork Smith River restoration effort will occur in several phases, eventually treating up to 100 acres of the 148-acre property. The rest of the property consists primarily of pristine meadows, white oak woodlands, and mature redwood groves. The property also contains the easternmost redwoods on the Smith River, and the largest privately owned flat along the South Fork. Rare stands of Port Orford cedar, which appear to be unaffected by the root disease (Phytophthora lateralis) that has devastated the species throughout much of its range, dot the landscape.

Burning piles at dawn (shown here on the north unit of the Smith River restoration site) is a great way to get warm in the morning. Fire is a safe and effective means of disposing of slash from restoration work, though it does contribute some carbon to the atmostphere.

Funding for the restoration effort was provided in large part by the a 50 percent grant from the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service. Lomakatsi, the landowners, the SLC general fund, and SLC contributors and volunteers provided the other half of the cost-share program.

Contributions in support of SLC’s restoration efforts may be sent to: Siskiyou Land Conservancy, P.O. Box 4209, Arcata, CA 95518. Donations are tax deductible and much appreciated.

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