Quinault Indian Nation jump-starting important spruce tree growth

A Quinault Indian Nation tree planting crew plants spruce trees as part of jump-starting the growth of this key species that helps stabilize river channels and fish habitat.

A Quinault Indian Nation tree planting crew plants spruce trees as part of jump-starting the growth of this key species that helps stabilize river channels that are important fish habitat.

Restoring Sitka spruce and native vegetation to the upper Quinault River valley floodplain is another piece of the complex puzzle the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) is assembling to rehabilitate the Quinault River and the sockeye or blueback salmon that depend on a healthy river system.

In the first phase of river restoration, QIN installed 13 engineered logjams in Alder Creek in 2008. The 2012 project built seven more engineered logjams to stabilize the river channel, restore habitat for salmon and reduce risk to landowners’ property from erosion.

Most recently, the Quinault Division of Natural Resources (QDNR) and its contractor R2 Resource Consultants, began the first of many floodplain forest treatments this spring after an extensive planning process.

“Most of the original Sitka spruce forest in the river valley was removed by the 1950s to establish homesteads or was clear-cut back when they didn’t replant,” said Kevin Fetherston of R2 Resource Consultants.

Today, the resulting floodplain forest is made up of nearly 80 percent red alder with some limited young spruce and a few remnant, older spruce. Non-native plants are also gaining a foothold in floodplains of the upper Quinault.

The project treated about 70 acres and involved thinning red alder to allow existing spruce to grow more quickly and to provide “gaps” in the alder canopy for new trees to grow. Crews then planted 12,000 spruce seedlings at about 170 trees per acre, similar to the densities observed in young, naturally developing forests of the Hoh and Queets river bottoms.

Jump-starting the growth of conifer by planting Sitka spruce will help encourage the return of natural functions of the floodplain and river, promoting the creation and stabilization of fish habitat, especially the mature floodplain forested side-channels that were once prevalent in the upper Quinault.

The project area is located mostly on state aquatic lands adjacent to Olympic National Park, but also includes some private and QIN owned land.

“We chose the area for treatment because the red alder stands and developing floodplain provided conditions suitable for thinning operations and spruce seedling planting,” said Bill Armstrong, Habitat Management Scientist of QDNR.

“Our treatments are designed to retain densities of red alder while the spruce seedlings and other plants grow that are sufficient to not only maintain shade for streams used by salmon, but also to improve stable habitat for elk and other wildlife that frequent the area,” he explained.

Sitka spruce can grow to 300 feet tall and live to 700-800 years old. When these giants fall into the river, they provide the “skeleton” for future floodplains to develop by collecting more trees, rock and silt until islands form, stabilizing river channels and providing side-channel habitat that fish need to grow and reproduce.

Monitoring of the forest in the project area will include measuring the amount of light in the forest gaps and rate of tree growth to assess the effectiveness of the thinning and overall rehabilitation approach.

In addition to the thinning and planting operations, the project also included clearing large infestations of non-native Himalayan blackberry from the project area.

“The non-native blackberry formed dense, impenetrable thickets that had outcompeted native trees and shrubs,” said Caroline Martorano, Invasive Species Specialist for QDNR.The project is being used as a demonstration to show what the Nation and its restoration partners want to accomplish on a larger-scale not only in the upper Quinault River floodplain, but in managed floodplains of other coastal river systems as well.

The blackberry was removed by a five-person crew armed with machetes and power brush cutters who cut down and then mulched the non-native plant where they grew. The same locations will be examined and retreated if necessary, then planted with native grasses, shrubs, and spruce seedlings in spring 2016.

Later this summer the project team will begin a designed, experimental treatment in the project area to address another growing concern – reed canary grass that is encroaching into side channel habitats in the project area.

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