Streams, and their associated floodplain and riparian ecosystems, are the primary habitat or provide critical habitat functions for a majority of the region’s native fish and wildlife. Approximately 85% of Washington’s terrestrial vertebrate wildlife species depend on riparian habitats for all or critical portions of their life histories.
Riparian areas are transitional zones between the upland environment and water in lakes, wetlands, streams, rivers, and the ocean. They provide excellent wildlife habitat – providing food, water and shelter. Naturally functioning riparian areas also perform vital ecological functions, including removing sediment from surface runoff; providing flood storage; maintaining appropriate water conditions for aquatic life; and providing organic material vital for productivity and structure of aquatic ecosystems.
Threats to riparian areas in the Nisqually Watershed have come from many sources. Since the late 1800s, riparian areas have been cleared and converted to use as pastures, cultivated fields, recreational areas and housing developments. In places where riparian zones have been altered, we see erosion, declines in water quality, and colonization by invasive, non-native plants which reduce habitat suitability for fish and wildlife.
The Chinese proverb “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” is a familiar saying at the Nisqually Land Trust office. Volunteers, Land Trust staff and watershed partners have spent many hours focused on riparian forest restoration. Over 180,000 native trees and shrubs have been planted on Land Trust property in the last eight years.
Revitalizing these river shorelines requires developing planting plans; preparing planting sites by removing weeds and cutting back pasture grass; planting; installing plant protectors; and many other maintenance tasks. These projects are focused on improving habitat conditions for fish and wildlife along the Nisqually River and its tributaries. In addition, these projects provide many other benefits, including increasing the resilience of the Nisqually watershed to climate change. Healthy, riparian ecosystems along the shorelines of rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands have been shown to improve habitat and species responses to gradual changes and increase the ability of habitats to respond to disturbance. Forested shorelines and floodplains will also help slow flood waters; provide wildlife corridors throughout the watershed and make sure that there is a healthy, functioning connection between the aquatic and terrestrial habitats.
Restoring these sites is slow work, but in 2012 we started to remove the plant protectors from some of the trees that have been planted over the last eight years. While many of these trees are still only 5-6 feet tall, some are over 15 feet tall and their branches are long enough to touch their neighbors. Over the next five years we anticipate planting another 100 acres along the Nisqually River, Ohop Creek and the Mashel River with native trees and shrubs to continue this watershed restoration effort.