Building Back Better Coastal Ecosystems: Three Local Projects, One National Goal

Oregon Coast Resiliency

By: Amanda Smith, public affairs officer, Columbia Pacific Northwest Region, USFWS

Photo: Three projects on Oregon’s coast with one goal — to make healthier, more connected habitat for Chinook salmon like this one, Credit: Roger Tabor/USFWS

Only ten percent of our Nation’s land is coastline. Yet these relatively small, water-lined areas are home to an enormous number of vulnerable species. Coastal ecosystems are special places for America’s wildlife, including a high percentage of our threatened and endangered fish, migratory shorebirds, and migrating and wintering waterfowl. Today, these species and their habitats face serious threats in coastal regions from human population growth and the development and disturbance that are often a consequence of growth. Population projections indicate that our coastlines will continue to receive the majority of the nation’s growth and development, compounding current habitat losses.

As habitat is degraded, reduced or eliminated, plants and animals suffer population losses that can lead to the need for protection under the Endangered Species Act. That is where the Service’s Coastal Program comes in. The Coastal Program works cooperatively with states, Tribes, governmental and non-governmental organizations, industry, and private landowners to conserve our nation’s coastal trust resources. Working with partners, locally-based staff provide technical assistance for habitat conservation design and planning, and financial assistance for habitat restoration and protection projects.

While this program serves 24 priority coastal areas, including the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, and the Caribbean, I wanted to take a look at how it was working in my own neck of the…beach. I had the opportunity to catch up with Madeleine Vander Heyden, the Service’s Coastal Program Coordinator for the state of Oregon and her restoration colleague Amy Horstman to learn more about three local projects making waves in Oregon’s conservation community (and beyond!).

Lower Rogue Estuary Restoration: Small Scale Project = Big Success for Coho

A large excavator puts big pieces of woody debris into the river
Photo: Example of large wood placement to benefit fish habitat; Credit: River Design Group

The Rogue River is legendary. Known for its white water rafting opportunities and rugged scenery, the Rogue was one of the original eight rivers protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. This wild river is also famous for its salmon. Most people when they think of salmon, picture immense fish fighting their way up rapids and waterfalls to spawn and die in spectacular numbers. Rarely, if at all, does an image of a small, young fish come to mind, yet the first year of a salmon’s life is as challenging to survive as anything it will face later on as an adult.

In the winter, federally threatened juvenile coho salmon rely on estuarine sloughs — areas of slower water — to escape from high flows in the river’s mainstem. In the warmer months, young coho, steelhead, cutthroat trout, and Chinook salmon benefit from cooler waters offered by deep, shady pools of off-channel tributaries and tidal channels. These aquatic habitats are in limited supply in the Rogue estuary due to the river’s steep gradient combined with modifications from human development. Thus, in 2019, Vander Heyden worked with partners, including the Lower Rogue Watershed Council, ODFW, BLM and others, to focus on restoring a portion of this important area.

“We are challenged in the Rogue estuary because it is a small estuary but a large river, meaning there are limited areas within the estuary to work.” says Vander Heyden. The Lower Rogue Estuary Project spans about five acres, yet the goal is large — improving salmon and steelhead habitat year-round while also benefiting other native species. Vander Heyden explains that quality fish habitat includes cool, shady areas in the summer and relatively calmer waters in the winter, both of which are facilitated by projects that provide “habitat complexity and connectivity”. In other words, fish (and other native species like beaver and amphibians) look for homes that are seasonably comfortable, have a variety of structures like logs and boulders, and allow for easy movement between the mainstem and off-channel habitats.

In addition to its recreational and aesthetic value, this estuarial area of the Rogue River has important ecological value. This location has been identified as a high priority area in the Southern Oregon Northern California Coho Recovery Plan, a collaborative effort between NOAA and USFWS working to restore this population of coho salmon to self-sustaining numbers. To make this portion of the Lower Rogue River more fish-friendly, the project team added large wood to floodplains and tidal sloughs which will increase floodplain complexity and diversity. The added wood also acts as overhanging cover, slows water movement, and provides a place to hide from predators. Additionally, riparian vegetation will be planted to shade the water and promote insect production for fish and other wildlife that use streamside habitats.

Five acres might not seem like much but this project will help catalyze greater and more extensive investment in this priority area, leading to additional restoration benefits over time.

Coquille River Seestrom Tidelands Restoration Project: Working Lands are Win-Win for All

Photo: Madeleine Vander Heyden shows a salmon caught while monitoring project success at a restoration site. Credit: ODFW

What do coho and cows have in common? Both need room to eat and move (or should we say moo-ve?). Another recent project Vander Heyden has worked on benefits both livestock and fish in the Coquille River. Started in 2017, the Seestrom Tidelands project is a cooperative agreement between ranching landowners, the USFWS, and other partners to restore tidal wetlands for fish while also creating seasonally controlled water flow to allow for pasturing of livestock. In addition to being home to coho and Chinook salmon and coastal cutthroat trout, this area is actively used by landowners for their livelihood. While conservation measures can seem at odds with working lands, projects like this one exemplify the power of partnership between federal agencies and private citizens.

“This is really a win-win for wildlife and people because it provides critical habitat restoration for coho and other anadromous fish while also providing improved pasture infrastructure (think water crossings, fencing), better forage for livestock, and controlled water management for the landowners,” says Vander Heyden. To achieve this, the Service teamed up with the Coquille Watershed Association, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the landowners to develop and implement a project that met agreed upon goals for the project.

One of the primary restoration actions was the replacement of a failing tide gate, the structure used to control how much water flows between the pasture and the Coquille River. “The aging tide gate caused the pasture to flood for a large portion of the year, impacting ranching operations. New rules for replacing tide gates to ensure they allow for fish passage into tidal creeks and sloughs are problematic for landowners. The new tide gates are expensive to construct and the permitting process is onerous” explains Vander Heyden. “Meanwhile, juvenile coho salmon use tidal wetlands, especially in the winter months, to get out of the mainstem of the river and grow large before heading out to sea — and this habitat has drastically declined in many of our coastal estuaries. So the project team came together to replace the tide gate and create fenced and planted tidal channels throughout the pasture for young salmon to use in the winter months. The ranchers are permitted to progressively open up the tide gate in the spring time, drawing water off the pasture for summer grazing by livestock. It’s a great example of how people and wildlife can benefit when we work together.”

This partnership approach to conservation is yielding big results. Upon completion in in 2019, this project created about 3 miles of tidal channel, reconnected 135 acres of tidal floodplain for fish to use after passing through a fish-friendly tide gate, and improved pasture conditions on a working cattle and sheep ranch. How is it working? Just ask the fish: during the first winter post-construction, monitoring efforts documented large numbers of juvenile coho residing in the restored floodplain. An unexpected benefit, especially for the imperiled Coquille River Chinook fishery, was the discovery of a large number of Chinook juveniles using the area to rear in the late spring. The word is out: build it and they will come.

Yaquina Wetlands: Restoring History, Helping Wildlife

Biologists in a boat with the native vegetation they are going to plant at the restoration site.
Biologists in a boat with the native vegetation they are going to plant at the restoration site.
Partnership floats our boat: ODFW’s Derek Wilson piloting a boat with the planting crew heading out to the site. Credit: MidCoast Watershed Council

Another place where restoration is yielding returns is in the Yaquina River estuary. On Oregon’s central coast, upstream from the town of Toledo, the Yaquina River’s tidal marshes provide habitat essential for several species of salmon and many avian and wildlife species. Due to historical diking and ditching activities, over 70 percent of these vital habitats are now gone. In 2017, as the Service’s National Fish Passage Program coordinator for Oregon, Amy Horstman was excited to assist partners by funding a project design that would allow fish to return to their former habitats. “Historically, the project area was a vast tidal marsh. In the 1900s, it was drastically changed by the construction of dikes, ditches, and tidegates to facilitate farming and other human activities,” Horstman said. “So our challenge was to emulate historical conditions and create rearing habitat for juvenile salmon.”

“Challenge” is certainly an apropos word. This area once used for farming needed quite a bit of work to restore its former glory. Fortunately, there were many hands to help with the heavy lifting. Horstman worked closely with the City of Toledo, the MidCoast Watersheds Council, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, and the U. S. Forest Service to reconnect 55 acres of previously altered wetlands to the Yaquina River. The project team breached and lowered the dike in multiple locations, filled ditches, restored and reconnected tidal channels, and added complex large wood and native vegetation to enhance tidal habitats.

Photos (from left to right): From the designs to the installation of native wood to the newly re-created tidal channels, the Yaquina wetlands emulate historical habitats. Credit: Madeleine Vander Hyden/USFWS

With these big changes came even bigger results. ODFW biologists have already confirmed sightings of threatened Oregon coast coho using the new channels. “Fortunately, in recognition of the conservation potential of this property, The Wetlands Conservancy purchased it in the early 2000s with the intent to restore it. Everyone involved was motivated to make it happen — the return of fish is a sign that we got things right!” said Horstman.

Three Separate Estuary Projects — One Goal

Three different Estuary projects, three different rivers, three different techniques — all with the same goal — work with partners for more resilient coastal habitat. If these individual projects seem like disparate patches of restoration rather than a blanket of conservation, it is because they are. Functioning a bit like a quilt, these improved areas enhance the wildlife and people beyond their immediate boundaries. In the way that a patch makes cloth stronger than it was before, these renewed spots of habitat strengthen the entire coastal estuary system by bringing back connectivity for fish, increasing habitat diversity, and fostering a deeper sense of community and partnership.

Learn more about the Coastal Program

USFWS Pacific NW Region

Conservation in the Columbia Pacific Northwest