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

 

Forest Roads – Culverts and Tank Traps

Charly Kearnsby Charly Kearns | October 2017

When the rains start falling again, one of the first things I think about is culverts. – specifically, the 100+ culverts that carry water under forest roads on Nisqually Land Trust lands. Granted, culverts might not seem very exciting to most people, but it’s critical to make sure that we keep them clear of debris and functioning properly. Each fall, I spend time at the Land Trust’s Mount Rainier Gateway Forest Reserve, checking the property’s roads and culverts.  The property encompasses over 3,000 acres and was historically managed for timber production. Part of the legacy at this site is a network of roads on steep terrain and these require regular maintenance.

While we’re committed to maintaining roads where they are needed for current and future management, we are also decommissioning roads that are no longer needed.  Removing roads reduces forest fragmentation and improves stream conditions. The Land Trust is managing the Mount Rainier Gateway property for northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet, endangered species that rely on old growth forest habitat and are sensitive to forest fragmentation.  With funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we were able to abandon 1.7 miles of roads this year, bringing the total to 7 miles since 2012.

Excavator digging out culvert.

Abandoning these roads involves removing all of the culverts to restore more natural water drainage; roughening the road surface to promote rapid revegetation and improve water infiltration; and blocking the entrance to the abandoned road with a “tank trap” to prevent vehicle access.  A tank trap is essentially a mound of earth in front of a ditch – something that even a tank would have trouble with.

We have been working with Tim Surface, an Ashford contractor, on this work since 2012.  He’s a wealth of knowledge, and a great resource.  Tim has been working in Ashford for 30+ years, and actually built a few of the roads on the property that he is now helping to remove.

Newly abandoned road – stream culvert removed and road surface ripped.

It’s very satisfying to visit each stretch of abandoned road, it means that there are fewer culverts to check and maintain; and I have to admit that I’ve always felt that there are too many roads. It makes me happy to help remove a few miles of them. And over time, individual forest stands will merge and there will be greater forest connectivity and resilience.

 

 

Birth of A Natural Log Jam on the Mashel River

bCharly Kearnsy Charly Kearns | May 2017

 

 

There’s a lovely stretch of the Mashel River, just a few miles above its confluence with the Nisqually, where several old growth trees still stand along the bank. Land Trust volunteers have helped clear Scotch broom and blackberry, and plant native trees and shrubs along shoreline nearby. This is a great spot for contemplation and once the habitat work is done for the day, we always spend a little time just sitting on the riverbank, watching the water flow by.

Last February, after a morning of planting trees, we started to talk about one particularly huge Douglas-fir on the opposite bank. The sort of tree that would take at least four people to reach all the way around – more than 5 feet in diameter and about 250 feet tall. We noticed that the bank was being rapidly eroded, exposing the roots. We mused about the earth shaking event that was destined to come, and how we’d love to witness it from a safe distance.

Sometime in the past few months, this event has come to pass. This ancient tree fell directly across the river, spanning from the opposite bank to the bluff on the Land Trust side of the river. With little sign of damage to the trunk, I imagine this log will be here for quite some time.

Events like this have the power to change the course of rivers, and I immediately began to fret about all the trees we’d recently planted downstream of this log. I knew that we were planting in a channel migration zone, but the reality of that didn’t sink in until this tree fell. The area that we planted may end up underwater or scoured away, so I will have to rest assured that Scotch broom can’t grow in those conditions.

Although the life of this ancient tree may be over, its role in the ecosystem is far from finished. It will most certainly collect logs and debris and create new and diverse habitat features for years to come. Over time it will continue its journey down the river, adding nutrients to the water and food for insects and other animals. For the short term though, this will definitely be my favorite lunch spot!

The importance of large logs in river systems has been well documented in recent years and in some places it’s necessary to design and install engineered log jams to increase instream habitat complexity where there are few opportunities for natural log jams to develop. In places where large, old trees still grow along the shoreline, sometimes we can just let nature take its course.

Tree Seedling “Weeds” Saved For Shoreline Restoration

by Katie Kirdahy | February 2017

Katie Kirdahy – 2016-17 AmeriCorps Member

Over the past few years, one of the projects coordinated by the AmeriCorps member serving at the Nisqually Land Trust is a conifer salvage event that is hosted in partnership with the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM). Organizing this salvage and participating in it was a highlight for me during the last few months.

At the plant salvage, volunteers dug up small Douglas-fir and Shore Pine from prairie habitat and then they potted these tree seedlings in 1-gallon pots, so that the trees can be planted on Land Trust properties next winter. This is a great way for CNLM to remove trees, which are considered weeds in South Sound prairie habitats, and a way for the Land Trust to acquire trees at a low cost. These native conifers are used to restore riparian forests throughout the Nisqually River watershed. It is also an opportunity to connect the Nisqually Land Trust volunteers with another local habitat restoration organization and its volunteers.

Collecting Tree Seedlings; Photo Credit: Meredith Rafferty

This year more than twenty volunteers attended this event, representing CNLM, the Nisqually Land Trust, and the Olympia Mountaineers. We collected one thousand trees, which will find new homes in clearings, former pastures, and abandoned roads on Land Trust properties. Many of the dedicated volunteers who helped at this volunteer event will join us again next year to replant the trees they rescued this year. These tree seedlings seem so small now, but I’ve had a chance to see the growth of the trees planted over the last 10 years on Land Trust property and it’s amazing to think about the visual impact these tree seedlings will have on the landscape. As well as the benefits they will provide to fish and wildlife in the years to come.

On salvage day one particular volunteer’s experience stood out, a man in his early twenties who had never volunteered to do any kind of habitat restoration activities before. He decided to come to the salvage as his second volunteer event with the Nisqually Land Trust. It was great to see him connect with the other volunteers, and enjoy the process of collecting the trees. I’m glad that after this extra-long day of volunteering he continues to attend volunteer events and plans to bring his younger sister along as well.

Potting up tree seedlings

My favorite part of serving as the Land Trust’s volunteer coordinator is connecting people to the land. Volunteers are critical to the Nisqually Land Trust. Each time they attend an event, take on new responsibilities, or share their service with the people they care about I see how their investment of time and energy is improving these wild places. My AmeriCorps service experience has helped me to realize how much I enjoy serving with volunteers and how habitat restoration is a powerful way to engage people with the environment. I look forward to continuing to connect others with the natural world in the future.

Glacial Heritage; Photo Credit: Meredith Rafferty

Good Humor and Flexibility Save The Day

by Charly Kearns | January 2017

Charly Kearns

For the past few years, the Nisqually Land Trust has chosen to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by focusing on habitat restoration in our watershed, rather than take the day off. It is evident by our huge volunteer turnouts, that many in our community feel the same way.

Since the holiday falls in the middle of our planting season, we have typically had volunteers help plant native trees and shrubs. That was the plan for this year too. Our Stewardship Team loaded our truck up with 300 potted plants, shovels, and plant protector tubes; and we headed to the site to meet the volunteers. There was just a thin blanket of snow on the landscape making the sunny morning extra bright.

Upon arrival, we discovered that recent freezing temperatures had frozen our plants into solid blocks of ice! While this shouldn’t damage the plants, it did affect our plans for the day. No matter how hard we tried, we weren’t able to get any of the trees out of their plastic pots! With 40+ volunteers expected, and no way to complete our day’s project, we had to come up with an alternative plan.

Peterson Road – Heading towards the ivy.

Thankfully (sarcasm intended), there is a large patch of invasive English ivy nearby. With no special tools, other than sheer volunteer power, we removed more than 1,000 pounds of ivy from the site in just 3 hours! Additionally, volunteers cut away ivy vines from all the trees that were getting smothered in the area. This will make a big impact on slowing this plant down, and limiting its spread into other nearby areas. We are very thankful for all of the energy that volunteers provided. At the end of the day, the truck was piled high with bags of ivy headed for the landfill.

In the afternoon, we took some time to harvest some willow and cottonwood cuttings and plant them onsite.

While the day didn’t go as we originally planned, we were still able to accomplish an incredible amount in a short time. This gives me one more reason to be thankful for our volunteers. They are flexible and good humored – two very important characteristics when it comes to working outdoors in Washington’s winter weather. Here’s a big “Shout Out” to our volunteers, from this event and every other event. You Inspire Me!

And a Special Thank You to those who were willing and able to give up a holiday to come do hard physical labor for one of the special places in the Nisqually Watershed.

Honored to Attend Fisher Release

by Charly Kearns | December 2016

Charly Kearns

Last week I was fortunate to witness an inspiring event, the release of 10 healthy fishers at Mount Rainier National Park.

Fishers are a large member of the weasel family, a bit bigger than a housecat. Because of their valuable pelts, fishers were hunted to extinction throughout much of their western range during the Great Depression. Populations have persisted in California, Southern Oregon, and British Columbia, but fishers were extirpated from Washington State. After more than 15 years of work by dedicated individuals, the fisher has returned to our state and the Nisqually Watershed for the first time in nearly 75 years.

Endangered species recovery often feels overwhelming, if not impossible. The list of major challenges includes habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, economic forces, and lack of scientific understanding. The case of the fisher is unique, in that there is actually quite a vast expanse of suitable habitat available for occupation in Washington, and the level of protection of these areas is greater today than ever before. The fisher faces competition from other species, but is a generalist, eating a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and even plants. These factors should be a key factor in the success of the reintroduction.

This year’s release is one stage of a multiyear reintroduction program, which started in Olympic National Park. The plan includes releasing 80 individuals into the southern Cascades and Mount Rainier, before moving to the North Cascades for further releases. The fishers were captured from First Nations Lands in British Columbia, where there is still a healthy population. Several elders and First Nations members attended the release, and members of the Nisqually and Cowlitz Tribes were present to welcome the fishers home.

Four female and six male fishers were released from their crates by children, something that has become a tradition during the course of this project. As these young people opened each box, a dark furry torpedo erupted and quickly disappeared into the dense forest. They were definitely not posing for photos. All the while, Tribal members welcomed the animals home with drumming and singing.

While I am sure the event was stressful for the animals, it was an opportunity for the public, and especially children, to become engaged with wildness. I am positive that this lesson will remain with those youngsters throughout their lives. I will certainly remember it. The value of an individual species is impossible to quantify, but we are poorer for every one that slips away. It is so heartening to see people work together to make things better. Wolves are returning to the southern Cascades, and who knows, maybe grizzly bears and wolverines will follow. The return of fishers is a great place to start. I hope that we’ll start seeing signs of these creatures throughout the region, maybe even on nearby Land Trust property in the future.

2016 JBLM Day of Service – Nisqually Shoreline Transformation

by Charly Kearns | November 2016

Charly Kearns

For the past three years, we’ve had the chance to partner with Joint Base Lewis-McChord on their October Day of Service. This program matches groups of volunteers from JBLM with nonprofit organizations in the community.

From a land stewardship perspective, it is hard to top a group of 25-30 young men and women who have been through basic training! Every time that we host this event, I am amazed at the energy, respect, and efficiency shown by the volunteers – this year was no different.

2016_jblm_dayservice_1

We spent the day at the Land Trust’s newest property in Yelm, a ten acre Nisqually River shoreline property. I had a long list of tasks identified, including: removal of several small, dilapidated sheds; invasive plant control, and fence installation. I was sure that would keep us busy for the day.  After providing an introduction to the site and overview of the day’s activities, I turned the group loose. It was all I could do to keep up with giving out new assignments as tasks were completed – I hardly had time to pick up a hammer or pry bar!

By lunch time, two sheds were on the ground, with salvageable materials separated from the trash, and all the nails removed. Another group had cleared all the Scotch broom on the property, and had put a big dent in the blackberry population. My biggest challenge for the day was harnessing all that energy and not run out of things to do!

As our initial task list neared completion, I ran back to our plant nursery and grabbed some salvaged Douglas fir seedlings. By the end of the afternoon, the entire site that had been cleared was also filled with baby trees. This was one of those days on the land that I like the most. It isn’t often one gets the chance to watch a site transformed so quickly. To see the result of hard work change the future of even a tiny piece of the planet is so rewarding.

Many thanks to this group for all their service, both on duty and off!

2016_jblm_dayservice_group

A Cease-Fire in the Blackberry Wars

by Charly Kearns | October 2016

Charly Kearns
I will try not to get too deep into military analogies, but as those of you who have spent any time controlling Himalayan blackberry can attest, it often feels like a battle. This is one of our most fierce invaders, not submitting quietly to control. Rather, this plant fights back.

We tend to spend a lot of time controlling blackberry in the summer and early fall. It is too dry to plant trees, ivy control is best saved for winter when the native understory plants are dormant, and spring is the perfect time to pull Scotch broom before it blooms. For our regular weekly volunteers, they understand that summer is filled with scratched arms and tiny thorns stuck in their hands. It is really a wonder that anyone volunteers to help with such a task. We salute everyone who is willing to help!

I actually really enjoy the struggle of blackberry control. The outcome is never known – some days we win, and others we lose. This plant is truly a worthy opponent! And there is a certain satisfaction that can only come from getting into the thick of it and emerging victoriously.

a-trophy-of-a-root
This year, our all-star volunteers have helped us to clear blackberry from 13.5 acres of Land Trust property! In many cases, we’ve removed these invaders from sites where restoration plantings were getting overwhelmed. We’ve freed young plants from the constricting canes and they are able to see the sun again.

Of course, the job is not done, and the blackberry will be back, but so will we! Over time, as our native trees begin to mature and the canopy closes in, the blackberry will die from lack of sunlight. Our native shrubs and shade tolerant species will have a chance to thrive.

This is the long term perspective, but it is one that gives me a great deal of hope. I know that there is an endgame, and that we can win.

For now though, as fall makes itself abundantly present, we will hang up our loppers for a sort respite. We’ll call a truce, and allow our wounds to heal. But we’ll be back at it next summer. Come join us!

volunteers-make-room-for-trees-at-ohop

Sometimes You Have to Poke the Bear

Headshot photo of Candi Tobin

Candi Tobin, Philanthropy Coordinator

by Candi Tobin | August 2016

Administrative Assistant, Land Steward, Philanthropy Coordinator – I’ve worn many hats at the Land Trust. This story is from my days as a Land Steward in the spring of 2013. I was doing what I thought was a routine monitoring visit at the Wilcox Flats Protected Area when I was reminded that the properties that we protect and restore can be wild and unpredictable places.

As I was skirting the river to check for invasive plants, a large, narrow hole came into view about 15 feet inland from the river. This hole was directly in the path that I was taking along the river and after considering my options I decided to leap over it to avoid thick shrubs on one side and the undercut bank along the river. I was mid-leap across the opening when I was startled by movement below and I suddenly started to think about the wildlife that might be using this hole as a burrow. By the time I landed on the far side of the hole, I was convinced—to my horror—that there was a flesh-and-blood, teeth-and-claws black bear asleep beneath me!

The shoreline has a fair amount of large woody debris at this stretch of the river.

The shoreline has a fair amount of large woody debris at this stretch of the river.

As soon as my feet hit the ground I flew, stumbling, through the woods, not stopping until I was some 50 feet away. By some stroke of luck the bear was still asleep. I couldn’t see the bear itself, but the steady rise and fall of the clumped vegetation that covered it told me it was there alright. I stood there for awhile gawking at the rhythmic rise and fall of the bear’s breathing and waiting for my heart to slow down.

I don’t know if it was courage or stupidity – more of the latter, I suppose – but whatever I had I mustered it and after several long minutes decided that I needed to see the bear for myself. I picked up a very short, rounded stick and chucked it toward the hole because in life, sometimes you just have to poke the bear.

Beaver activity at the Tatrimima property is hard to miss!

Beaver activity along the Nisqually River is hard to miss!

I braced myself to flee for my life through the woods or jump into the cold river to escape an angry, groggy bear, but my little piece of raining debris hadn’t fazed it. I crept closer to the burrow, adrenaline pumping, to get a better look. The bear didn’t stir; it’s breathing wavered only slightly as I approached. Finally, hovering on the edge of the den, I peered in… and it dawned on me that what I had spent the last twenty minutes panicking over wasn’t a bear.

It was the remnants of one of the massive cottonwood trees that pepper the shoreline! There is significant beaver activity on the property and the tree had been wrenched from the earth by the river and was wedged beneath the undercut bank. The “breathing” that had scared a solid five years off the end of my life was a gently rocking subterranean log; the protruding end of which was my “sleeping black bear”. Well played, Nature. Well played!

This property encompasses a beautiful riparian forest along the Nisqually River on the outskirts of Yelm – you should join us for a Nature Walk there sometime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wildlife at Mount Rainier Gateway Protected Area

by Charly Kearns | July 2016

Charly Kearns

Charly Kearns, Land Steward

Many people are surprised to hear that summer is a bit slower for land stewardship activities. Once the weather turns hot and dry, our task list dries up a bit as well. Tree planting takes place in the wet fall and winter months and the bulk of our weed control activities occur in the spring and early summer. Of course, our volunteers’ bloody arms and legs tell you we are in the middle of blackberry control, but overall we have a little more time for fun projects. This involves some wandering in the woods, and some time at my favorite swimming holes. Another one of the projects I am really enjoying this summer is documenting wildlife presence and use of our Mount Rainier Gateway Protected Area.

Deer at Mount Rainier Gateway Protected Area

Deer at Mount Rainier Gateway Protected Area

Over the years that I have been exploring this protected area, I have been astounded at the amount of animal signs visible along the roads and trails. I have had my share of close encounters on the property as well. I was snowshoeing a few years ago, and surprised a sleeping herd of elk, bedding in the deep snow. I have seen a half dozen black bear and cubs, usually foraging on distant slopes or high tailing it down the road as I approach in my truck. I even got to see two bobcat kittens playing in the ditch. When they noticed me, they leapt nearly 6 vertical feet into a tree and scrambled away. Nearly every time I visit the property, I flush a ruffed or sooty grouse. It is apparent that animals use these roads much more than people and now we have an opportunity to get some images of these forest residents. The Nisqually Indian Tribe has graciously allowed us to borrow several motion sensor wildlife cameras. So now the hunt begins.

Elk at Mount Rainier Gateway Protected Area

Elk at Mount Rainier Gateway Protected Area

I installed the cameras in places where I have observed wildlife signs in the past, mostly on decommissioned forest roads. The Land Trust has been abandoning unnecessary roads on this property in order to reduce habitat fragmentation and the need for maintenance. These roads are quickly becoming forested, but they are still used by the animals. The cameras have been up for close to two months, and I recently collected them and downloaded the photos.While there are no big surprises, we did get a few good photos of some of our common residents. One camera location in particular seems to be a regular hang out spot for deer and elk. We also captured some pictures of two different black bears.

Black bear at Mount Rainier Gateway Protected Area

Black bear at Mount Rainier Gateway Protected Area

I’ve moved the cameras into some new spots to see if we can document any other species, so stay tuned for more pictures in the coming months!