Eel River Recovery Program

The recent county decision to reject the large-scale Terra-Gen wind project caused a lot of soul searching in the environmental community of Humboldt County, but it was the right thing to do from an environmental and social justice perspective. Discussion that surrounded the decision focused largely on one part of the climate-change equation: how we can help slow or reverse climate change through alternative energy production. However, our community might have its greatest impact through carbon sequestration, and we could restore Eel River watershed ecosystem function along the way.

Streeter Creek watershed with Douglas-fir over-topping oaks, lessening food for the animals, increasing fire risk, and decreasing baseflows, which makes this watershed a high-value target for forest health implementation.

The resources are becoming available for forest health planning for carbon sequestration, and a whopping $550 million per year is available for implementation from the Cal Fire Climate Change Initiative (CCI) fund. Luckily the knowledge of how to reshape our forests is available in the living memory of indigenous residents, whose ancestors sculpted the landscape using fire. This is often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Natives burned in the appropriate climate windows after rain or snow, maintaining open meadows for the deer and elk while keeping oak woodlands thriving in order to increase acorns for themselves and for the animals. By preventing the landscape from becoming choked with dense vegetation, traditional ecological practices maximized water yield and promoted robust stream baseflows. We are lucky to have living knowledge of local forest health and restoration—by comparison, in Germany the Black Forest is dying, but forests there have been so altered for so many centuries that no one knows how to restore the natural ecology.

As another resource for forest health planning, we have excellent scientific documentation of how the landscape of the Eel River has changed since European colonization. Douglas-fir can form magnificent old forests on north-facing slopes in wetter parts of the Eel River watershed, but it can also invade meadows and over-top oak forests, if not controlled. This is undesirable from a biodiversity perspective because grasslands and oak woodlands provide a lot of food for animals. No benefits are accrued from a timber production perspective because the invading Douglas-fir is usually small diameter, and not merchantable. Douglas-fir can disrupt natural watershed hydrology by encroaching on springs in meadows, diminishing water for the adjacent grasslands and stream baseflows. Surface water is also decreased when Douglas-fir over-top and replace oak woodlands or grow too densely after old-growth logging.

Ron Lincoln Sr. (r) explains forest health from a Native American perspective to Sarah Reith of KZYX, as tribal elder Ernie Merrifield (far left) and others listen. by ERRP

The Eel River watershed is ideal for organizing the work of ensuring forest health because it is 85% private land, and land owners have considerable flexibility. People are mobilizing in different parts of the Eel River watershed as funding becomes available for pilot projects, and together we are becoming sufficiently organized to access Climate Change Initiative funds. Pilot project funding from the Wildlife Conservation Board and the North Coast Resource Partnership is available to assist with helping land owners develop forest health plans, and for communities to organize a labor force so that subsequent implementation phases can boost local employment.

Chris Heppe of BLM talks about recreational access and forest health at the jump off for the Cahto Wilderness Trail on August 5, 2019. all photos this article by Pat Higgins, unless noted

Organizing around forest health and fire safety galvanizes communities. Hippies in the hills, Native Americans, ranchers, and foresters can all come together in this effort. ERRP is currently involved in helping residents of the Tenmile Creek watershed in their efforts to plan for forest health implementation and to obtain major funding for this work. The Tenmile Creek Watershed Council has formed and expressed interest in forest health, and it may become the fulcrum for implementation. Grassroots interest is also sprouting in the Middle Fork Eel watershed and Round Valley, and in the heart of the Eel River watershed between Dos Rios and Dyerville.

Forest health meeting attendees at Harwood Hall in Laytonville on January 25, 2020, including members of the newly formed Tenmile Creek Watershed Council, who hosted the meeting. Article author and fisheries biologist Pat Higgins kneels in front.

By making each property fire safe by implementing forest health measures, one land owner is secure, but when we make progress at a landscape scale, we help our ecosystem re-adapt to fire and make our whole watershed safe.

Call Pat Higgins if you want to talk forest health strategy at (707) 223-7200.