Thinking Outside the Channel: Innovative River Restoration Work Connects Rivers and Communities across the Willamette National Forest

Large woody debris placed in a stream channelLast summer, the Willamette National Forest in partnership with the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council helped reconnect Lower Staley Creek to its historic floodplains. "Past harvesting practices and construction altered the channel" explains Matt Helstab, one of the co-leads on the project, "the intention of this project was to restore function allowing habitat to occur naturally and entice species back". Points where two rivers join, or confluences, are biological hot spots and Chinook salmon and bull trout are species currently listed under the Endangered Species Act that have measurably returned back to this site following this project along with otters, osprey and Harlequin ducks.

In May, the Middle Fork Ranger District and the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council received the 2018 Riparian Challenge Award from the American Fisheries Society (AFS). The Lower Staley Floodplain Restoration project won the prestigious national-level award among competition from over fifteen states and three countries. "We are really proud to have this project recognized by AFS" says Forest Supervisor, Tracy Beck. Healthy floodplains serve many benefits for people and the environment, such as: reducing the impact of flood events, recharging ground water tables, protecting water quality and providing spawning grounds for fish. Restoration projects like this demonstrate a change from trying to create channelized river systems that resist change to open natural floodplains that are resilient and flourish with change. Overall, the project increased aquatic habitat by as much as 650%, and doubled the connected floodplain acreage. Interagency coordination among federal and state government, private landowners, corporations and conservation groups was required for the success of this project.

Currently, the Willamette National Forest, in partnership with the McKenzie Watershed Council, is working on their biggest project to date reconnecting over 600 acres of floodplain on the lower 4.5 miles of the South Fork McKenzie River. The construction of Cougar dam and levees in the 1960s has starved the lower river of sediment and wood and confined the river to one fast moving channel, fundamentally altering a system that was once braided channels with wetlands. The project willTwo employees hold the Riparian Challenge Award restore natural function by removing levees, adding large wood, and reconnecting water across the floodplain. When completed, the lower south fork will be a massive area of braided channels and wetlands where spring Chinook salmon, bull trout, Pacific lamprey and host of other native species will thrive. “The intent of the project is to revive a biological hotspot” says Meyer, project lead. "We are thinking outside the channel" says USFS Hydrologist Johan Hogervorst, “by restoring an entire valley bottom”. These projects will help ensure healthy functioning streams and resilient ecosystems we have always relied on for future generations to come. Phase I of the project, about 125 acres, is near completion.

To learn more about the Lower Staley Creek restoration visit: For more information about the restoration work occurring on the South Fork McKenzie River, visit: http:// and for an overview of restoration work on the Willamette National Forest visit: http:// To learn more about the McKenzie River Watershed Council visit: http://