Mattole Estuary Gets Heli-wood

June, 2014




 Guest Article by the Mattole Salmon Group

This fall the Mattole Salmon Group (MSG) led a project to use a helicopter to place a massive amount of whole trees and wood into the estuary.  This type of wood loading has been done in many other places but never in the Mattole.  It has a distinct advantage of being able to place whole trees, which can last longer in a river system than smaller pieces.

When faced with an estuary that lacks complexity and has a minimal carrying capacity, the scientific community is in consensus that introduction of large wood can make a significant habitat improvement.  Over the last ten years the MSG has been leading projects to install large wood structures in the estuary to improve the quality of this key habitat for salmonids of the Mattole.  While many of the structures MSG has installed in the last ten years have moved downstream, all are still present in the estuary.  Many of the structures are associated with deep holes and complex fish habitat.

A significant aspect of large wood projects in the past has been anchoring.  We have hauled in large boulders and anchored structures by securing the wood to a boulder base.  The anchoring methods are effective—the anchored rocks reduce buoyancy of the wood, and slow the movement of the structures.  However anchoring is expensive and timely.  We would rather allocate those resources to the installation of more wood.  Anchoring is required for wood brought in by road. Without branches and rootwads, the wood is short-lived in the river.  Occasionally nature delivers whole trees to the estuary and we observe those rare trees moving slower through the system than our anchored structures. Logistically whole trees are challenging, as they require special equipment such as a helicopter for delivery to the sites. 

The scale and expense of a helicopter kept us from considering this type of project until a site tour with members of our Technical Action Committee (TAC) and Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC) two years ago.  At that time, we were limited by what we could haul on the road.  Trees had to be bucked down and limbed before they were delivered to the river. HRC floated the suggestion that a helicopter working on a local harvest of theirs might be a cost-effective way to get whole trees into the river. 

Under BLM’s lead, with the planning direction of Dave Fuller, the BLM implemented a 5-year restoration plan in the estuary.  With this plan they were able to permit 5 years’ worth of projects at once.  With the permitting complete, a helicopter project was in reach.  MSG’s new executive director at the time, Sungnome Madrone, relentlessly pursued the idea.  Excitement grew and two years later, we had funding, permits, access to trees, and finally an available helicopter.

The crew prepared over 180 trees for transport to the estuary. Patrick Queen Construction took on every heavy equipment task needed to make the helicopter time as efficient as possible. Trees were tipped, root-wads were cleaned, trees were weighed, poles were made and delivered as close as possible to all sites. 

The Sikorsky helicopter arrived with its extensive crew of mechanics, fuel trucks, boom trucks and ground crew.  In two days and 11.5 hours of fly time, we moved more wood into the estuary than we had previously in ten years combined.  This years effort included placement of 180 whole trees, 15 grapple- hauls of slash, 88 15’ pine logs representing another 20 trees, and 44-30’ poles.

The helicopter “built” on-bank and in-stream structures to mimic a system with large quantities of naturally introduced wood.  In three areas, materials were piled for the excavator to create island-building apex jams.  A fourth pile was created to use in 2014 for slough enhancement. 

After the trees were flown off the slope, the excavator re-contoured areas where the trees were removed.  The Mattole Restoration Council managed the revegetation aspect.  Their crew mulched and sowed a combination of native and naturalized grasses in an effort to encourage speedy re-vegetation of all disturbed up-slope areas. The field construction work was completed within two weeks.

Since the construction aspect of the project has been complete, MSG has led a monitoring effort with the goal to understand how the introduced trees get sorted by the river over time.  MSG staff inserted identifying tags into all whole trees and mapped the topography of work areas and the location and orientation of all trees. 

The success of this project is the result of many peoples hard work; the MSG is very grateful for the massive amount of support from staff and the community. Funding and support for this project was provided by USFWS, NOAA, The Nature Conservancy, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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