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Project Aims At Restoring Fish Habitat,
'Connectivity' In South Fork Salmon River Watershed

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 11, 2010

Public comments decrying planned road decommissioning in central Idaho's Big Creek drainage has shifted project proponents, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Bonneville Power Administration, to a go-slow approach.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Wednesday approved a $295,000 within year budget request from the tribe to supplement its fiscal year budget ($475,00) for the "Reestablish Connectivity and Restore Fish Habitat in the East Fork of the South Fork Salmon River Watershed" project.

The Council recommendation included an expansion of the geographical scope of the base project to include Big Creek and a portion of the request, $135,000, will be used to fund surveys and assessments and initiate environmental review of proposed actions in Big Creek this summer. But work this year will not include the decommissioning of 10 miles for forest roads in Big Creek drainage as planned.

The balance of the funding approved yesterday, $160,000, will be used to decommission forest roads in the Secesh River drainage. The Secesh flows into the South Fork. Big Creek is a major tributary watershed to the lower Middle Fork Salmon River.

The within-year budget request, with the modifications, is endorsed by BPA, which funds the Council's Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program as mitigation for impacts on fish and wildlife resulting from the construction and operation of federal dams in the basin.

The main focus of the base project is to address identified habitat factors that limit the productivity of Snake River spring/summer chinook salmon and steelhead, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Bonneville markets power generated in the federal Columbia-Snake river hydro system.

BPA, as a federal agency, is obligated via NOAA Fisheries' 2008 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion to restore habitat in Big Creek and in the Salmon River drainage at large.

The NPT's within year budget request, was presented to the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee in April and was followed by a 14-day public comment period. The slew of comments, mostly from residents of Yellow Pine, Idaho, caused the project proponents to change their plans. The village of Yellow Pine is high in the Idaho mountains (altitude 4,765 feet), 150 miles north of Boise, and is surrounded by national forests.

The road through Yellow Pine eventually dead ends at the River of No Return Wilderness, which holds about 95 percent of the Big Creek drainage. Forest roads, built mostly for mining and logging activities, serve as an extension of the Valley County road system, providing access to the forests for hunting and other activities.

"The county feels these roads should not be obliterated," said Jeffery Allen, director of the NPCC's Idaho office. He said that office was inundated by calls of protest regarding the planned Big Creek road removals.

"We want to make sure outreach is done," Allen said.

During Tuesday's Fish and Wildlife Committee meeting, Idaho Council member Bill Booth said that he wanted to assure local residents that any decision-making processes would be conducted with openness.

The within-year budget request from the tribe says that a comprehensive restoration plan and statement of work for 2010-2012 for the Big Creek watershed has been developed. The 2010 work elements include removal of a fish passage barrier culvert on Big Creek above Jacobs Ladder, road decommissioning up to 10 miles of roads, and surveys of roads and stream crossings.

Roads to decommission have previously been identified in the Payette National Forest's Transportation Access Plan, which is itself under legal siege. The comments from residents questioned the expenditure of funds in an area that has already been damaged extensively by fire.

Sedimentation, removal of riparian vegetation and animal waste are documented effects relating to the overuse of these areas by extended camping, horses, mules and other pack animals brought in for spring, summer and fall hunting activities in these areas, according to the proposal. Non-system roads (primarily into active or inactive mining areas) exist in the mid-upper Big Creek watershed and most are not used or maintained on a regular basis.

"Erosion and sediment off these roads has a greater effect than that of system roads because there are more miles of non-system roads than system roads. Non-system roads are not typically designed with resource protection standards, and most non-system roads are not maintained at all," according to the within-year budget request. "Fish passage barriers exist in the upper 10 miles of the watershed, all created by road construction."

The watershed includes approximately 50 miles of Big Creek mainstem draining 381,101 acres. The main fish species found in the watershed are chinook salmon, steelhead, westslope cutthroat, bull and brook trout.

Project Aims At Restoring Fish Habitat, 'Connectivity' In South Fork Salmon River Watershed
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 11, 2010

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