The Nisqually Watershed is a conservation incubator – small watershed, big ideas.

 

What if Microsoft put its awesome technological shoulder to the conservation wheel in the Nisqually River Watershed?

When it comes to generating novel ideas for conservation, sometimes what it takes is getting enough bright, diverse minds into the same room – or even better, the same forest.

To that end, Microsoft’s Environmental Sustainability Team visited the Land Trust’s Gateway Forest Reserve on a radiant blue-sky day in mid-October.

Over the past two years, Microsoft and the Land Trust partnered to complete the first carbon-credit transaction in the Pacific Northwest. That transaction helped protect habitat for at least fifteen “at risk” species in the Reserve and was the equivalent of taking 6,600 carbon-emitting cars off the road.

Joined by project partners from the Land Trust, the Washington Environment Council, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Western Ecology Division, and Natural Capital Partners, the Microsoft team visited the carbon-project site it purchased credits from. It also toured the Nisqually Community Forest project – a site for potential future carbon projects and a target area for salmon recovery.

The brainstorming started deep in the forest:

  • How can Microsoft technology be leveraged to maximize conservation efforts for threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead trout?
  • What if fish-population monitoring can be completely automated, with computer vision providing instant species identification?
  • What if dynamic land-cover mapping can be completed in minutes, so that conservation efforts can be geographically targeted to have greatest impact?

The potential is enormous. The Nisqually Watershed is a conservation incubator – small watershed, big ideas. We try to develop innovative conservation tools that work here at home but can be applied elsewhere as well.

Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Scientist, explained that artificial intelligence can perhaps best be thought of as “massive cloud-storage capacity, massive computational capacity.” Landscape-scale conservation efforts require data-heavy monitoring and modeling, and AI’s massive capacity can be harnessed to enable these efforts.

We will continue to explore collaborative opportunities to increase the speed and scope of conservation. Last year, the Mashel River, the largest tributary of the Nisqually River, was designated federal critical habitat for Nisqually steelhead, which are just a few bad years from extinction. Technological innovation is more important than ever if we hope to keep our working forests productive while also increasing the benefits they provide to our threatened species.

Microsoft’s Environmental Sustainability Team along with partners from the Land Trust, the Washington Environment Council, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Western Ecology Division, and Natural Capital Partners toured our Gateway Forest Reserve and our carbon project site.

Photo provided by Bonnie Lei from Microsoft

 

Land Trust Receives Historic Mount Rainier Property

The Walker Family, whose deep ties to Washington State and Mount Rainier National Park go back to the turn of the twentieth century, has donated to the Land Trust a historic 14-acre property near the park’s main gate.

Situated along Highway 706, the property’s towering fir and cedar trees have long lent a cathedral-like atmosphere to the approach to the park. The property is bisected by Tenas Creek, whose crystalline waters cascade out of the park on their way to the Nisqually River.

Five generations of the extended Walker Family have grown up using the property. It was first purchased in about 1900 by Calvin Heilig, who was based in Tacoma but made his fortune building and operating theaters in the major cities of the West Coast.

Toward mid-century, John A. Cherberg married Calvin’s niece, Betty, and together with Heilig’s nephews, Gile and Edward Walker and John Walker, M.D., they purchased the property and later made it the first property to be enrolled in a statewide greenbelt program that permanently protected its stately trees.

Cherberg served as Washington’s lieutenant governor for more than thirty years, and the building that houses the Washington State Senate is named for him. John Walker was an early partner with the Virginia Mason clinic in Seattle and was chairman for twelve years, until his retirement.

Robert Walker, president of the family corporation created to hold the property and an adjoining 38-acre parcel, said that his family donated the property “because we know that the Land Trust will manage it just as we always have – to protect its natural beauty, which has been so important to our family for so long.”

The Land Trust will manage the property as part of its Mount Rainier Gateway Reserve, which now totals some 2,500 acres of high-priority, permanently protected wildlife habitat between the national park and Elbe Hills State Forest, near Ashford.

Jump-Starting Habitat Restoration

Engineered logjams, or ELJs, are a technique for jump-starting habitat restoration in salmon-producing rivers where the natural supply of timber has been depleted: Logs are piled up to change the river’s hydraulics, which immediately increases the complexity of pools and riffles and provides sheltered alcoves for juvenile fish until replanted forests mature and take over.

Since 2004, over a hundred ELJs have been completed on the Mashel River, the largest tributary to the Nisqually River and host to all five species of native Nisqually salmonids, including threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. That work continued this summer, with the first of two intensive habitat restoration seasons at the confluence of the Mashel and the Little Mashel, near Eatonville.

All told, this project will install nine more ELJs on properties owned by the Land Trust and the Town of Eatonville. Four were completed this summer. With the early start to the fall rains, river flows have increased and returning Chinook have already been spotted nearby.

Project Manager Brian Coombs of the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group has been coordinating a team that includes Herrera Environmental engineers; an RV Associates construction crew; the Nisqually Indian Tribe, which is the Nisqually Watershed’s lead entity for salmon recovery; and the Land Trust, Eatonville, and local, state, and federal agencies.

The project will also enhance two existing side-channels to provide year-round habitat. Once construction is complete, the shoreline will be planted with native trees and shrubs.

Funding for this project is being provided by the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, via the Nisqually Indian Tribe and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Carbon Credits To Fund Restoration Of Nisqually Land Trust Via California Exchange

Microsoft is helping to preserve forests at the foot of Mount Rainier by investing in the potential of trees and restored forests to soak up carbon pollution. The value of absorbed greenhouse gas emissions will be set through California’s cap-and-trade exchange and the income used to grow the asset, through new plantings and road removals. Listen to audio and read more here…

Pacific Ninebark: A Restoration Favorite, and Beautiful Bee and Butterfly Food

Pacific Ninebark is one of our favorite native plants to use in restoration projects. It has long trailing branches that create shady nooks along shorelines and in upland forests. Like many species of the Rosaceae family, it has fibrous roots that help stabilize slopes and streambanks. It’s a great nectar source for many insects, including bees and butterflies. And since the bark isn’t very palatable, deer and elk rarely damage it.

It’s also attractive. The blooming season is fairly short – often mid-May to mid-June – but the dome-shaped clusters of small white flowers catch the eye every spring. The flowers develop into papery red fruit with shiny yellow seeds that are released in the fall.

Pacific Ninebark may not grow as fast as the native willows, but it does tolerate a wide variety of conditions. It grows well in sun and shade; and while it grows best in places where soils are moist for part of the year, it tolerates sites that dry out during the summer. Since a mature Pacific ninebark bush may get to be 15 feet tall and 15 feet across, a patch of these shrubs can form a wonderfully dense thicket that provides excellent nesting sites for native birds and shelter for many species.

A Look Back to 1992: A River with a Plan of Its Own

by Kim Bredensteiner, Nisqually Land Trust Associate Director

When I think of the Middle Reach of the Nisqually River, just upstream of Yelm, I think power and mystery: steep, forested bluffs, wide gravel bars littered with cobbles, river islands that change shape year by year, hidden side channels and expansive floodplain.

The Nisqually Land Trust’s Thurston Ridge Protected Area includes 155 acres and two miles of shoreline along this part of the Nisqually. It protects high-quality salmon habitat, tall bluffs covered with Douglas-fir, side channels where industrious beaver make their homes, and young floodplain forests dominated by red alder and cottonwood.

Twenty-five years ago, landowners who’d planned to build cabins along this stretch of the river found that the river had other plans. The Nisqually migrates powerfully through this area, and what was once the main channel suddenly became a side-channel along the toe of the bluff.

Shortly thereafter, we acquired two properties in the Thurston Ridge Protected Area – one purchased, one donated. Both are in the river’s floodplain and are sometimes underwater during high flows. Over time it is likely that the river will move back across the floodplain and reoccupy that side-channel. Protecting these properties, and the rest of the Thurston Ridge Protected Area, ensures that this natural channel-migration process can happen.

Our thanks to the supporters who helped fund these early protection projects and the landowners who partnered with the Land Trust. Twenty-five years later, we see the fruits of those efforts in a natural, free-flowing river. And the Nisqually Land Trust continues to focus on protection of the Nisqually River floodplain.

 

 

Dan Miszewski, Hard-working Site Steward

By Katie Kirdahy, Volunteer Coordinator

Dan Miszewski was at Yelm Cinemas one day in 2015 when he saw
an ad for the Nisqually Land Trust. He’d been a longtime volunteer with the
Washington Trails Association and Mount Rainier National Park Associates, but he was looking for something closer to home. He began coming to our weekly work parties, and after a few months he joined our Site Steward program and “adopted” our Lower Reach Protected Area, on the Nisqually River near Yelm.

The Lower Reach hasn’t been the same since.

Dan turned out to be hardworking and a bunch of fun. Site stewards are responsible mainly for monitoring their properties, but Dan has gone well beyond that. He’s accelerated habitat restoration, spending over sixty hours caring for his site last year alone.

The Lower Reach has long had issues with dumping, camping, vehicle trespass, firewood robbery, and Scotch broom infestation. Dan tackled them head on. He cleaned up dumpsites and planted ferns and scattered logs to disguise and obstruct old four-wheeling paths. Over the winter, he also planted more than one hundred salvaged trees.

When Dan isn’t planting he’s pulling Scotch broom and generally keeping a watchful eye on this riparian forest and its shoreline, which provides high-quality habitat for all five species of native Pacific salmon. And Dan’s site-visit reports are funny and positive, showing his connection to the outdoors: “Nature is very much reclaiming the place, the two side roads are just covered with wild grass and flowers.”

Thanks to Dan for all he’s done for the Land Trust. His work has been invaluable and we hope he sticks around for a while!