Watersheds are about connections; they transcend boundaries, connect diverse ecosystems, forests to oceans and people to larger communities just as streams merge into rivers and lakes. On the Oregon Coast, watersheds also connect our past to our future.
The Siuslaw Watershed Council’s summer camp program teaches youth about their watersheds with hands-on learning on the Siuslaw National Forest. Middle and high school campers recently visited a local stream and salmon habitat restoration project at an old homestead site on Fivemile Creek, just south of Florence, Ore.
When early settlers came to the Oregon Coast Range they homesteaded, working hard to clear valley bottoms for life-giving agriculture. An old barn on the Fivemile-Bell property, where a barred owl now perches beneath the rafters, is a reminder of the site’s history.
Students camped overnight below the barn, and spent the next day working in the sun with shovels and buckets. Wading in mud up to their waists, they dug out native plants like sedges and skunk cabbage to replant along a restored stream channel which will meander along the bottomland just as it did before the valley was settled. Hard work and cooperation were both evident as the campers worked together to pull fence posts, giant plants and occasionally each other out of thick, sticking mud.
Paul Burns, a modest, soft-spoken fisheries biologist for the Siuslaw National Forest pointed out a pair of native lamprey eels swimming in inch deep water near the camper’s feet.
“We live in a place of lush forests, rivers and ocean, and it’s important to understand the value and vulnerability of the resources around us,” said Andy Marohl, the camp director for the Siuslaw Watershed Council. “Watershed restoration is a long-term vision; our young people will determine whether today’s efforts succeed.”
Restoration work is crucial for recovering salmon populations and is achieved by working together on a watershed scale. In the Siuslaw watershed, unprecedented partnerships have emerged between agencies, organizations, landowners, companies and community members to meet environmental and economic challenges.
In 2004, the Siuslaw Basin Partnership won the Thiess International Riverprize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards; the first time a U.S. community group had been so honored. The River Prize came with $100,000 in Australian dollars and an encouragement to “twin” with a country that was just beginning work on a similar watershed restoration issue. The Partnership chose Russia’s Sakhalin Island, where both the landscape and the salmon issues are similar to those of the Siuslaw.
Participants, including Paul Burns, have shared their expertise with Russian communities. So in one sense, Siuslaw Watershed Council camp participants are involved in a local effort, and in another sense, they are part of a global learning process.
“Let’s show them how it’s done in Oregon,” said one mud-covered eighth grader prying under the roots of a giant skunk cabbage. His words were fitting; just as this region has led the way in restoration partnerships, local kids may also serve as an example for emerging watershed programs around the world.