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The ever-changing tale of Oregon's Bear Creek.
© 1998 By Wayne Elmore, national riparian specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, Prineville, Oregon.

October 1996. The stream channel and riparian area continue to improve. NOTE: There are 10 more photos with this story that show changes and improvement on Bear Creek, Oregon, over 21 years.
For a copy of Spring 1998, call 1-800-RANGE-4-U.

Riparian restoration and management has been a major issue in the arid West since the mid-1970s. Early restoration efforts were mainly the responsibility of wildlife and fisheries biologists and concentrated on the exclusion of livestock for habitat improvement.
     Through experience and research we have learned that the restoration of our riparian areas affects much more than just "wildlife and fisheries habitat." These green areas alongside creeks and streams influence water quality, aquifer recharge, sediment filtering, energy dissipation, late season stream flows, reduction in erosion, and rebuilding of the stream banks. This is accomplished through stream function or the interaction of water, soil and vegetation. A stream is functioning properly with the correct hydrology, an adequate amount and right kind of vegetation is present, and the erosion and deposition is in balance with the stream.
     Why did it take us so long to begin to understand? One reason was we concentrated our differences on "values and opinions" and like someone once said, "Everyone is right from their point of view." Another reason was we did not have a common way to communicate our ideas so others could understand our perceptions.
     There are many more reasons but these two became large stumbling blocks toward progress. We now know that to produce the values that we want from our streams and associated riparian areas we must have "functioning systems." Only when these basic functions exist in streams do we produce the values we desire. Otherwise we continue using up the capital in the system and not producing any interest to harvest.
     Riparian restoration and management is all about one basic factor-keeping water on the land longer. Everything else we want from streams and riparian areas are built upon this one simple process.
     The problem is not new. Plato wrote about water running off denuded hillsides into poor condition streams in 400 B.C. He said that water was no longer stored in the ground to be released as springs and streams, but instead ran quickly back to the ocean. He also said that "the shrines of extinct water supplies serve as testimony to my hypothesis."
     We now face a new two-fold problem. One is the perception of "instant success" and the other is "near natural rates of recovery." The first arises from the early comparison of exclosures to areas that contained improper or poor grazing strategies for the stream. These areas were usually outside the exclosure. We also tended to select enclosure sites that appeared to have the potential for a fast recovery. They commonly had some remnant vegetation, deep soils, or habitat values we wanted to protect. We observed some phenomenal changes in our streams when "incompatible livestock use" was compared to "non-use." However, it still took us many years to begin to understand the true meaning of these changes. Near natural rates of recovery arose out of these same observations and we began to expect all streams to display similar responses given the same management. We did not include climate, soils, stream type, present ecological condition, upland areas, valley gradient, and a multitude of other factors.
     Bear Creek in Central Oregon gives us a unique opportunity to observe a stream over 21 years of change. As you look at the individual photos of this stream, analyze your own feelings about what you see. Assume, as you go from one photo to the other, you are arriving at this stream for the first time and you are having to rate it on its progress and condition. Think about what you would expect the stream to look like the next year, what changes will occur from certain climatic events or changes in management practices, and, finally, what do you expect the stream to look like in 1998.

It was in 1976 when I started photographing and working on Bear Creek, which is located at approximately 3,500 feet elevation in the high desert of Central Oregon. Precipitation averages 12 inches per year with peak runoff occurring in mid to late February. Summer thunderstorms are fairly frequent. The area had been grazed by domestic livestock since the late 1800s and the licensed use in 1976 was 75 animal unit months (AUMs) from April until September. Surveys during this year revealed that the riparian area totaled 3.8 acres per mile of stream and was producing approximately 200 pounds of forage per acre. That meant if livestock ate all the available forage and used 800 pounds per AUM, it took one mile of stream to support one cow for one month. Stream banks were actively eroding, the channel was deeply incised, flows were frequently intermittent, and runoff events contained high volumes of sediment. The riparian area was storing less than 500,000 gallons of water per mile.
     In 1976-78 the BLM partially rested the area from grazing in an attempt to restore the productivity of the riparian area. In 1979 and 1980 the area was grazed for one week in September and from 1981-1984 it was not grazed. Juniper trees on the adjacent hillsides were thinned in 1983 to improve upland conditions, reduce erosion, and to see if this action would increase willow regeneration. During 1985 the pasture was divided into three units with money supplied from the county Grazing Board and labor provided by the permittee. The grazing was changed from season-long to a three pasture late winter/early spring use period (mid-February to April 15). These dates normally follow the early runoff events for this stream system. This allowed vegetation to be present for bank protection and regrowth of vegetation during the critical summer months. The regrowth also provided bank protection from summer thunderstorm events and livestock forage for the following year.

By 1989 the licensed use had increased to 354 AUMs, five times the amount previously grazed from the area. The livestock permittee reportedly reduced his annual cost of hay by $10,000 because of less winter feeding. In 1996 the riparian area had grown to 12 acres per mile of stream and was now producing approximately 2,000 pounds of forage per acre. The production had increased 30-fold. The filtering of sediments by the vegetation had raised the stream bed by two-and-a-half feet and we were now storing nearly four million gallons of water per mile. Stream length (sinuosity) had increased by one-third of a mile in the three mile stretch, also helping keep the water on the land longer. Rainbow trout had finally returned.

We have learned a lot about the compatibility of livestock with the restoration and management of riparian areas since the mid-1970s. There has been a lot of dissension, anger, myths, and successes, but we should be proud of ourselves for not giving up and for what we have achieved. Some of the more important lessons include:
     (1) Timing, intensity, and duration are usually more important than numbers of livestock; (2) Values cannot be perpetuated until basic stream function is established; (3) The most important factor in success is commitment by the operator; (4) One grazing strategy does not fit all streams; (5) Present riparian condition is very important in setting goals and objectives; (6) Upland condition must be included in any restoration program; (7) Climate cycles dramatically affect restoration rates; (8) Droughts are just as important as floods to riparian recovery; and (9) Restoration and sustainability of riparian resources occurs only when we utilize the interest produced in our riparian systems and not the capital.
     Last year I gave a talk at a watershed symposium in California and showed the slides in this article. An ecology professor from U.C. Berkeley came up to me after the presentation and said, "I hated your talk. You've messed up my perception of streams and my mind forever."
     There is a lot we need to do, and still to learn, to restore the functionality of our streams and riparian areas but we can only do it if we work on the entire stream system together. This means we have to be able to communicate our thoughts and ideas and set our biases aside long enough to agree on common goals and objectives. It has been said, "We are where we are today and we can be nowhere else; it is where we go from here that counts."

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     Wayne Elmore is a riparian specialist for the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management  based in Prineville, Ore. He heads the Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and BLM's National Riparian Team. Elmore has walked over 2,500 miles of stream in 30 years. "I want to fix everybody's creek," he says. "It doesn't matter who owns the stream or what condition it's in."


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