Monday, August 27, 2012

Yankee Fork Rehabilitation Project receives national attention

Anne Castle (right), Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science, talks with
 Kim Trotter of Trout Unlimited about the Yankee Fork project to restore salmon habitat.
Todd Adams photo

"The Challis Messenger"
(From the August 23, 2012 edition)

Anne Castle was scheduled to tour the Yankee Fork salmon restoration project last week, but the Halstead Fire exploded, resulting in closure of the road, an evacuation notice for residents and a change in plans for the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science.

So, organizers from Trout Unlimited and project partners from a variety of state and federal agencies went to Plan C, which had Castle touring the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery in the morning and meeting with partners over an August 16 barbecue of fresh Alaskan sockeye salmon.

The event took place under sunny, smoke-free skies at Sunny Gulch Campground near Redfish Lake. A bit of smoke from the Trinity Ridge Fire was visible in the southern part of Sawtooth Valley, but the site was, at least temporarily, upwind from the Halstead Fire.

The Yankee Fork project fits into the Obama administration's America's Great Outdoors initiative, Castle said. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has designated two projects in each state, one of which, like the Yankee Fork, is a river restoration project.

The local project is a great example of restoration, reconnection and partnerships, said Castle. The administration is spotlighting it so other communities and states can look at what happens on the Yankee Fork and maybe put a similar project together. "And so we're trying to build support in the local community for the project but also as an example of what can be done."

Rivers are important because "they're the thread that connects us to the land," Castle said. In the past, rivers have been damaged as society has turned its back on them, building cities along their banks and damaging them in other ways.

River restorations not only help fish, Castle said, but they can boost local economies via project design and construction dollars flowing in plus recreation spending from anglers, hunting and wildlife viewers.

Nationwide, licenses, access fees and other recreation fees amount to $145 billion per year, she said.

The administration's signature program is about community supported or bottom-up conservation projects to restore natural processes, not top down projects imposed from above, Castle said. Key partners include Trout Unlimited (TU), which is acting as a facilitator or motivator and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, which have been involved in Yankee Fork projects since their inception 25 years ago.

None of this would work without willing landowners, such as the J.R. Simplot Company, said Castle. "I want to congratulate all of you," Castle told representatives from the tribes, TU, local, state and federal agency representatives, for coming together to make the project possible. "Look what's happening in the Yankee Fork. This is exciting."

She also thanked Custer County for its support. Local officials were otherwise engaged dealing with the Halstead Fire.

Trout Unlimited sat down with Simplot company representatives October 6, 2011 to get the latest project figured out, said Kim Trotter of TU. Since then partnerships have grown stronger to get the project going.
Jerry Myers of TU has been a key figure in bringing partners and the project together. The main funding is from the Bonneville Power Administration's (BPA) fish and wildlife conservation program, established to mitigate fish losses from the agency's hydroelectric power dams.

"As an old fart who's loved fish all his life, I'm glad to be here," Myers said.

Unfortunately a lot of Yankee Fork and other Custer County locals couldn't make it due to the fire. Myers, the "barbecue man" cooking the Alaskan sockeye salmon said he hopes to be eating something else - local Chinook salmon - the next time the project partners get together.

The Yankee Fork has a lot of value for juvenile salmon rearing, said Mike Edmondson of the Governor's Office of Species Conservation.

The project should be thought of as rehabilitation, not restoration of the Yankee Fork back to pre-mining condition, said Terrill Stevenson, who worked on the tributary assessment for the Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec). The dredge section has the most potential for salmon habitat improvements.

Project plans include keeping the area's rich mining history alive for locals and highly visible for visitors, including the Yankee Fork gold dredge and tailings piles.

In a time when money and resources are tight, passion and partnerships "will help us prevail," on such projects said Lorri Lee, BuRec's regional director. The Yankee Fork groundbreaking is only the first step, she said.

The project is important to the traditions and cultural practices of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, said Chad Colter, the tribes' fish and wildlife director. Salmon fishing is important; a key part of the tribes' heritage and so is habitat restoration that will bring more fish back to the Yankee Fork.

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have $61 million from the fish accords signed with BPA, and plan to spend the majority on habitat restoration projects in the Salmon River drainage. "It's important to bring back the fish to pass on to the next generation," Colter said.

"I learned a lot time ago that working together, we can accomplish things we can't accomplish alone," said Bart Gamett, fish biologist with the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

Construction was scheduled to start this month on the multi-agency project that will reconfigure some of the old fishponds on the dredge section of the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River into a side channel to benefit juvenile Chinook salmon. It's expected to be completed by the time the snow flies and be ready for juvenile salmon next year, but plans may be delayed due to fire threatening the area, ongoing closures and evacuation notices.

Speakers expressed optimism that work would begin on schedule.

The plan is to recreate side channels and restore stream flow through about a mile of J.R. Simplot company land where the Yankee Fork Dredge left a series of fishponds. The project is located below Bonanza and the Yankee Fork Dredge on land between Cearley Creek and Jerry's Creek.

The initial project would reconnect a 1,500-foot-long section of fishing ponds back to the main channel year-round, at both high and low flows. The Sho-Ban tribes were instrumental in constructing the ponds among the gold dredge tailings in the 1980s and connecting them to each other and the main channel.

Now, more than 30 years later, they are no longer connected to the river, at least on the upper end, due to beaver dams and erosion.
Flowing side channels are better habitat for fish than the ponds that now exist, because stream flow means more oxygen and flowing channels have a variety of habitat including pools for fish to rest and feed in. 
We are grateful that "The Challis Messenger" shared the photo and excellent story by Todd Adams with us. (THANKS, Anna!)  Due to circumstances, we were unable to attend the August 16 event.  "The Challis Messenger" is the GOTO news source for Challis and Custer County.  You can subscribe to their fine weekly newspaper online to keep up with "All Things Challis & Custer."
  Click here to visit the newspaper's website.

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