Talk NERRdy to Me: Dr. Alice Yeates

Jun 29, 2023

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s itinerant interlocutor Nik Charov spoke with Alice Yeates, stewardship coordinator at the South Slough Reserve in Oregon. They talked about a really Big Project that includes chaos, canary grass, and possibly dynamite (but not really), and what it’s like to go backwards and forward in time at the same time.

Nik: Dr. Alice, welcome to Talk NERRdy. Thank you for joining me on Zoom … yep, still Zoom. It’s a beautiful day in Maine. I should be outside. You’re a stewardship coordinator. You should definitely be outside.

Alice: I have a lot of outside days coming up.

Nik: That’s an understatement. We hear you’ve assured yourself four years of work because the South Slough Reserve—which turns 50 next year, by the way—got a $3.5 million Bipartisan Infrastructure [Law] grant. You’ve got a “BIG project”!

Alice: Got a big project, yeah. 

Nik: What is this BIG Project that everybody’s talking about, even here on the East Coast? 

Alice: I’m honored. It’s the “Wasson Creek Watershed Ridgetops to Estuary Restoration Project” and it aims to restore an entire watershed. We don’t act small here in Oregon. It’ll be fun. 

Nik: How many acres?

Alice: It’s a 525-acre watershed.

Nik: Between two ridgetops? Like a bowl?

Alice: Yep. The lower lowlands are 22 acres,  and they connect to Winchester Creek, which is the main creek flowing into the South Slough estuary. Where it connects to the creek is tidal fresh wetlands, which are currently reed canary grass-dominated. So much of the watershed is degraded land.

Nik: Why is it degraded? What happened? 

Alice: Let me tell you the story of the watershed. Since time immemorial, Miluk Coos people have cared for this land and managed it for abundance. Then, in the 1900s, families that moved to the area converted wetlands into pasture for cattle grazing and subsistence farming. They diverted streams into ditches, which was helpful for farming but devastated the habitat for salmon and other species. 

In 1974, the Reserve acquired that part of the watershed and conserved it for research, education, and recreation. However, as it was no longer used for agriculture, it became dominated by invasive reed canary grass, which can grow over my head!  Elk graze it when it’s young, but when it’s tall, canary grass has poor ecological value.

Before the Reserve acquired the land, there also had been a lot of logging in the uplands. That changed in the headwaters of the Wasson Valley, where they discontinued clear cutting. In the 1990s, the Reserve developed the Winchester Tidelands Restoration Project and identified the Wasson valley as a fantastic opportunity to restore an entire basin. We had  degraded floodplains, loss of wetlands and their stream complex. In the uplands, trees were growing back really thick and not with as many of the species that once occurred there.

Nik: Why does that grow-back happen like that?

Alice: When timber companies clear cut, they try to grow trees that are tall and straight, with few branches and poorly developed crowns. So they plant them close together. Their common practice is to thin it out after 12 years, then do a commercial thin where they sell the large logs, and then a final harvest. That method of forest management is fantastic for sending to mills and shipping away. 

What’s ecologically useful is a very different type of forest. For example, the endangered marbled murrelet nests in old growth forests because it needs large limbs to create platforms on which to nest. A forest grown for timber, with few big limbs, has no value for the murrelet.

Old growth Sitka spruce forest at Cummins Creek, Oregon. Something to look forward to in the Wasson Basin.

Nik: SSNERR received $3.5 million dollars for this 525-acre restoration. You’re going to tend this forest, thin it, work on the uplands … given that only 22 acres are in the floodplain, it seems like you’re going to be working mostly on hills that are dense with young, thickety trees. That sounds … hard. 

Alice: Before this big grant, we got funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program to get started in the uplands. That funded my going out and marking boundaries, which meant going straight down some very steep ravines. Rainforest and temperate forest need disturbances to create really complex habitat. So we’ll also be using “variable density thinning,” which means making the landscape patchy again, creating gaps and clearings and snags. Those are really great for wildlife—animals love hanging out in little sunny patches. 

Nik: Ah, you want to create an environment that mimics nature’s chaos. But how do you plan chaos? Are you just going to randomly blow stuff up with dynamite for a year? 

Alice: There is definitely a plan! The Reserve has used dynamite in restoration work in the past—so it’s not off the table for restoration projects, but it is for this one.

Something to aspire to: Tom’s Creek, another wetland in the Reserve that has experienced little degradation.

Nik: Oh. We talked about dynamite in a previous interview and I got very excited as well. Clearly I work in my quiet office far too much. So, my question with restoration is always—and I know this is a hot topic in the Stewardship sector—when you restore, to what point are you restoring? 

Alice: You mean, what’s the baseline?

Nik: Yeah. Where are you going back to?

Alice: That’s a very challenging question. We think of  “back to and towards.” We’re living in a time of change. If we restore everything back to how it was 100 years ago, does that account for the current situation, the losses we have seen elsewhere in our region, the climate we are in, and the one we are moving towards? The climate has changed so much and continues to. I like to think about restoration as embracing the chaos, complexity, and dynamic-ness. That makes it really complicated to say whether it’s successful. That wetland is in its own state of dynamic flux, right? What we want is good habitat for fish, a diversity of native species …

Nik: You’re restoring life to it, instead of restoring it to life, in some previous state?

Alice: We want it to function for the purposes of the plants, animals, and people that live here and use this space. Like I said, murrelets have specific nesting requirements, so one objective is to promote forest growth to meet their requirements. That’s not restoring it back, it’s learning from what it used to be like. 

Working with the Tribes is really important. They have long-term knowledge of the system, what was here and what was functioning, and they combine that with understanding the needs of the system and people now. A big component of this project is working with the Tribes in the planning and the implementation stages, so they’re active in making these changes and using the space. We’re putting in a lot of culturally important species—plants intended to be used by Tribal members. We are trying to avoid herbicides, so those resources are safe if people want to come and harvest something.

Tribal elder, John Schaefer, Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians sharing his knowledge of Wasson wild edibles with visiting researchers from Pacific Birds Habitat Joint Venture.

Nik:  Does anybody want that invasive reed canary grass to stay, or will it be removed?

Alice: Nobody, not even the elk. This is a species that’s problematic all over the country. It basically stops every other plant from growing there. It’s been shown to reduce insect invertebrate populations and then there isn’t food for salmon. Everything is connected. Elk and other species don’t eat it when it’s taller. It’s not something we want but we can’t eradicate it either. This isn’t something that’s going to completely go away. We need to be realistic. Reed canary grass will likely continue to be a part of the new community, just hopefully not a big part.

Nik: It sounds like phragmites here in the Northeast. We’re never going to be rid of it but we do try to battle it back in places. Will this require mechanical removal? Maybe … dynamite? 

Alice: When I first learned about restoration, I was shocked to see photos of big machinery in stream systems. Now I get it. We’re going to scrape the reed canary grass off the surface and fill in the ditches farmers made. We’re restoring it to Stage Zero restoration, where you grade it flat, and then you put a whole bunch of surface roughness on it—logs, plants, etc.,—and then you release water over it. The water creates its own pathways through this new wetland. That’s part of this valley reset. What will come back is this more dynamic (sorry Nik, not dynamite) web stream complex in which we’ll actively plant native species to out-compete the reed canary grass.

Nik: Like shaking an Etch-a-sketch to clear it, and then you release the creek and it’ll go whoosh, drawing new paths? 

Alice: Somewhat like that. It’s complex. There are fish in the stream that you don’t want to die as part of your restoration, so you’ve got to get all the fish out that you can while you hold back the water. The last step is filling in the ditch and releasing the impounded water into the valley. But it’s not a huge enough river that it’s going to push down. It’s going to trickle.

Nik: Trickle down eco-gnomics? You know, it seems like Reserves are doing bigger infrastructure projects more often nowadays? I’m thinking of Elkhorn’s Hester Marsh

Alice: It’s a realization that’s been a long time coming, that we need to think holistically and bigger. There’s a lot of patching up this little thing here or fixing this one problem, but if you’re not thinking of it on a larger scale, then maybe you’re not seeing the benefits and returns come back to you.

Nik: And surely it helps that it’s the golden age of conservation funding. We’re like Oprah’s audience. “You get a million, and YOU get a million, and YOU get a MILLION!” 

Alice: I think this is the perfect time. This has been the story of this valley. In the 1990s it was identified as an important place for restoration. We started to acquire more land, and then we got the funding to do the planning. Then I came on and worked with our advisory team to make updates and changes and use new technologies, research, and techniques. We adapted that plan. And now we’ve got funding to restore an entire watershed! 

For the longest time, that was the biggest challenge. There’s been money to support salmon but they don’t want to do any of the upland stuff. Everyone recognizes watershed problems and solutions, but no one has the money to support it. This was an incredible opportunity because it meant we could do the whole valley in one go, instead of piecemeal funding here and there. I’m really grateful.

Nik: So I’ll walk into Wasson Creek 25 years from now and there will be rainbows, murrelets, and salmon jumping up the falls from the estuary to the ridgetop. Is that the vision?

It’s all (liquid) sunshine and rainbows over Dalton marsh, restored in 1998 using dynamite. (You heard me, Nik.)

Alice: It depends, right? There’s definitely going to be rainbows if you’re there at the right time. In five to 10 years, we’ll start seeing good native vegetation and, hopefully, beavers will be working their magic.  (We love beavers here!) Forests take longer. We’ll see some response in 10-25 years, but murrelets like old growth. It’s great the Reserve holds its land in perpetuity so we can have these long-term impacts. It might be another 50 years before a murrelet sees the benefit of what we do in the forest today. 

Nik: But who among the project partners is going to be there to see that? Are some staff on the project already having children so that they can take over the project? Or their grandchildren can? 

Alice: The community here is really invested. Our education crew runs summer camps and the kids come back to intern and help out with the  camps. There’s a lot of connection to the South Slough long-term. 

We’re trying to build that into this project, as well. Everyone who comes sees this project in its baby stages. The Coquille Indian Tribe  will have a youth crew this summer to remove invasive plants. Next summer, they’ll hopefully help with replanting native and culturally important plants. The following summer, they might help maintain them. That’s a whole youth group who hopefully will see this project evolve. School groups will come out and do the same. We have ideas about how to engage artists and others to capture this change and story so that people feel invested in the project. As they grow up, they can watch those changes happen and be here to love and care for the place.

Nik: I think we all should come visit now, walk through the headwaters and reed canary grass.  Road trip!

Alice: We’re going to try to make a documentary so that people can see those changes. It’s a mammoth project, I have to say. There are a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of celebrating that we got the money and challenges to overcome in order to successfully achieve the project. My stress levels …

Nik: No doubt.

Alice: Working on it. It will be fun. I feel honored to work on this project. It’s been a long time coming. To be the one implementing it is humbling and amazing. And honestly, when I get stressed, I look at all the people so willing and dedicated to help. We have a great community stepping up because they believe this project is worthwhile and important. 

Nik: And all it took was a “little” cash injection to get it moving, and now the ball is rolling down from the ridgetop to the river. Thanks so much for telling us about it. I think the documentary should be like that Linklater film Boyhood, with the same project partners interviewed every four years for 32 years.

Alice: I might start looking a bit grayer and more tired by the end. 

Nik: I smell an Oscar!

“Forest Banksy” Alice Yeates marks trees for forest restoration

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