How I Joined the Wood-in-the-Water Choir

In the 1980s, Dolloff worked as a post-doctoral fishery scientist in Alaska and Montana. USFS photo.

Not everyone knows from an early age what they want to do when they grow up. I did. Raised in a small coastal Maine town that was home base for marine and estuarine research and with an affinity for the outdoors, I knew I was destined to pursue a career in marine biology.

Right out of high school I had the good fortune of landing a summer job with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. It did not take many days of pulling, cleaning, and rebaiting lobster sampling traps with fermenting alewives to become convinced that I needed to reconsider my options. I majored in forestry and wildlife at the University of Maine.

By the late 1970s, after several temporary jobs and a M.S. in zoology, I was casting about for what comes next. At the time, I knew little about salmon and the temperate rain forest of Southeast Alaska. I knew even less about the USDA Forest Service (USFS), except that it frequently was in the news for something it either had or had not done regarding timber harvest.

I had no idea that in addition to foresters it also employed biologists. So when I learned that the USFS wanted someone to study the effects of timber harvest on salmon in Alaska, I was both surprised and intrigued. Sign me up!

At the time, the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest at more than 17 million acres, spent as much as $15,000 per mile to remove logging debris from six-feet wide streams. The intent: to improve spawning and rearing habitat for juvenile salmon and trout.

To be clear, these small streams were affected by logging. Debris, including tops, limbs, and any wood considered unmerchantable often wound up in and over the water.

One could often easily walk along the stream channel and not get wet feet! Everyone knew that wood in the water was bad, particularly for the fish. Over the next three years I set out to demonstrate the obvious. Or so I thought.

Dolloff partners with national forests in the Southern and Eastern regions to support their stream restoration efforts, like this on on the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina. USFS photo.

I set up a standard before/after experiment with selective removal of large wood as the treatment and juvenile salmonid production as the response variable.

But as the post-removal results accumulated, something was wrong. By every metric I examined, from density to size to growth rate, the fish were telling me they liked messy streams! At the end of the study, it was clear that large wood, whether from logging or natural input processes, meant healthier streams and more fish.

As it turns out, others had also reached this seemingly counterintuitive conclusion. The 1982 Annual Meeting of the American Fisheries Society featured a session devoted to large wood in streams. It was here, at my first AFS meeting, that I first heard the director of the wood-in-the-water choir, USFS scientist Jim Sedell.

I and several others in the room had data and statistics with which we hoped to convince the skeptics. Sedell had history, imagery, conviction, and passion — a truly potent cocktail. His late 19th and early 20th century sepia-toned images of log drives, snagboats, splash dams, and channelized riverbeds spoke volumes and inspired many, including me, to join the choir.

In Alaska, it was easy; in streams flowing through old-growth it was obvious that high loads of large wood were the norm. Outside of Alaska, however, particularly east of the Mississippi, things were different.

In the mid-1980s, I accepted a position as a research fish biologist with the USFS in Blacksburg, Virginia and quickly discovered that southeast Alaska and southwest Virginia were worlds apart, at least regarding large wood in streams.

While not openly questioning the importance of wood in the water for fish, most managers maintained “maybe that’s true in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s different in the East.” And, at least on the surface, it was different. Everything from tree species to fish species was different.

Dolloff’s research includes conducting brook trout inventories with the Center for Aquatic Technology Transfer team. USFS photo.

Forests and the streams and rivers that flowed through them were different. Extensive land clearing and conversion and use of waterways for transportation had left most streams and rivers barren of large wood. The value of wood loading was not evident to my eastern colleagues because wood had been removed and not allowed to recruit in the vast majority of eastern forested streams for centuries.

Even finding eastern watersheds with wood loads representative of the pre-settlement era was difficult. This situation warranted a two-pronged attack.

First, conduct inventories of large wood in eastern streams across a broad cross-section of stream types, including wilderness, to gain a better understanding of existing and potential wood loads. Second, in counterpoint to the stream-cleaning experiments in Alaska and despite considerable skepticism, intentionally add large wood to selected forest streams.

The inventories demonstrated that wood loads in historically unmanaged watersheds rivaled that of similar streams in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. And over time it has become clear that whereas removing wood is detrimental to fish habitat, adding wood restores and stabilizes habitat.

Similar investigations across the country and around the world have yielded similar results. Practically everyone now recognizes that wood in the water is both natural and, except where human infrastructure is at risk, necessary.

Today, resource managers routinely add large wood to streams and lakes as habitat enhancements. Together with partners like Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, the USFS now sponsors workshops with titles like “Stream Restoration with Large Wood Materials.” How far we have come.

Reprinted with permission from the AFS publication, Fisheries.

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