Group: Cut trees to save salmon

Watershed association says tree thinning on Duck Creek will help fish population

Posted: Monday, April 08, 2002

A citizens group and local foresters want to thin the woods near part of Duck Creek to create better conditions for spawning salmon. Reaction from nearby residents is mixed.

The Mendenhall Valley creek is among five Juneau streams listed under the federal Clean Water Act as impaired by the runoff of sediment and pollution from urban development. Duck Creek's populations of salmon and trout have declined greatly over the years, scientists say.

The Mendenhall Watershed Partnership has proposed trimming spruce and cutting down alders in the thickly forested, city-owned greenbelt beside Duck Creek between Taku Boulevard and Mendenhall Boulevard, a quarter-mile stretch. The greenbelt, in a residential neighborhood, is 50 to 75 feet wide.

The idea is to open up the canopy of trees so more light can pour in, allowing an understory of ferns, bushes and young trees to grow quickly.

The larger mats of roots in the resulting forest would hold soil in place, filter pollutants and stabilize the stream banks, said Cal Richert, president of the Juneau chapter of the Society of American Foresters.

It also would be better habitat for insects, which fish eat, he said. And the overhanging trees would shade the stream, keeping it cool, and provide large woody debris, which conceals young fish from predators.

Foresters plan to use chain saws and pruning saws to cut down about half of the alders, plus trim the lower branches of conifers and cut down a few of them, Richert said. The workers, which would include volunteers from the foresters society, wouldn't fell cottonwoods or large trees, he said.

Richert and Mitch Lorenz of the National Marine Fisheries Service introduced the thinning proposal to the public at a meeting last week at Riverbend Elementary School.

No one from the affected neighborhood attended the meeting. But neighborhood resident Roger Fitzjarrald, in an interview, said he favors thinning some of the woods next to Duck Creek so he can see the stream from his house. But if workers thinned throughout the greenbelt, "it wouldn't be a greenbelt anymore."

Another resident, who asked not to be named, said she opposes the project, partly because she doesn't want to see neighbors' yards across the creek.

The woman also said Duck Creek can't be restored to a functioning salmon stream without spending millions of public dollars. And she doesn't want even more bears drawn to her neighborhood by spawned-out, dead fish.

"Let it go," she said. "Let the ducks live in it. Don't invite the bears."

Duck Creek starts near Back Loop Road and flows to the west end of the Juneau Airport, generally on the west side of Mendenhall Loop Road. It also draws water from several ponds east of the road.

"It's sitting in the middle of the most highly developed area in Juneau," said Lorenz of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The forested portion to be thinned is near critical fish habitat, where the gravel streambed hasn't been filled in with sediment, he said. Salmon lay their eggs in the spaces between bits of gravel. As many as 30 coho salmon have been seen in that stretch, many more fish than in other places in the creek, Lorenz said.

In the 1970s, about 500 adult cohos returned to Duck Creek each year to spawn, but now only 20 to 50 come back and they don't spawn successfully, he said.

The Mendenhall Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit citizen and agency group, planted willows and sedges near the streambank there, but the plants didn't take hold because it was too dark, Lorenz said.

The idea of thinning the forest originated with another citizen and agency group, the Duck Creek Advisory Group, which created a restoration plan for the stream, said Dave Hanna, board chairman of the Mendenhall Watershed Partnership.

The partnership will need permission from the city to thin the woods, said Kim Kiefer, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department.

Kiefer said she will ask the group to present its proposal to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, which can take public comment, on May 7.

"If it doesn't have neighborhood buy-in, we're not interested," Hanna said Thursday. "We're concerned about people living in the watershed."

Duck Creek has been studied since 1994 by scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service and others. Local citizens, businesses and agencies in recent years have replaced some stream crossings with larger culverts, revegetated the streambank and nearby ponds, and removed sediment from the streambed all to show that the creek can be restored.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000 approved a $4 million restoration plan for Duck Creek, of which $1.2 million would come from the city in cash or in materials, services or land. But the proposal has been delayed as the Corps studies whether restoring the creek would attract birds and animals that would be hazards at Juneau Airport, said Rorie Watt of the city Engineering Department.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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