A Day on the Elk River

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Monday, September 28th, 2015
Elk River Train Trestle. Photo Courtesy of Natalynne DeLapp.

Elk River Train Trestle. Photo Courtesy of Natalynne DeLapp.

The consequences of the recent intensive timber extraction in the Elk River watershed are fairly well-understood—landslides, bank erosion, gullying, road-related runoff, and failed road facilities, among many other impacts, have resulted in an astronomical amount of sediment being delivered and deposited into Elk River and its tributaries, resulting in rises in the level of the riverbed and channel restrictions, over-vegetation, and of course, causing significant increases in the frequency and intensity of flooding. Individuals and families have lost their domestic and agricultural water sources, have their homes flooded and have their ingress and egress to and from their homes blocked from three to 20 times-a-year. Fences are destroyed and can’t be rebuilt because the next high water would destroy them, houses can’t be lived in because of continuous mold problems and septic systems are flooded.

In modern times, the discussion continues as to what impacts contemporary logging operations are having, as conducted by HRC and Green Diamond Resource Company, the two large industrial timberland owners in the watershed. Each of these postulates that so-called “legacy” i.e., historic, or pre-contemporary operations, impacts, and practices are to blame for the condition of Elk River, and that contemporary operations do not significantly contribute to the problems.

Humboldt Redwood Company, unlike its counterpart, Green Diamond Resource Company, maintains an “open-door policy” when it comes to visitors on its property. So, earlier this month, EPIC staff joined representatives of Humboldt Redwood Company, and long-time upper Elk River resident, Kristi Wrigley, on a field tour to witness current on-the-ground conditions on HRC property, and to discuss the logging, environmental, and most importantly the human issues in the upper part of the basin.

Our tour began not on HRC land, but at the infamous concrete bridge over the North Fork Elk River at the corner of Elk River Road and Wrigley Road. There, we viewed the over-grown vegetation on the banks of the river, with thick layers of sediment deposits clearly visible on the river-bottom as well. Here, the channel gradient is very low, and as we all know, water, as well as sediment, which is carried by water, flows downhill. In reaching this low gradient section of the river, the sediment has nowhere to go, and the river does not have enough assimilative capacity to carry all the sediment downstream. There is little wonder that the flooding continues at its frequent and frightening pace here.

Elk RIver flooding bridge. Photo courtesy of Kristi Wrigley.

Elk River flooding stone bridge at the corner of Elk River and Wrigley Roads. Photo courtesy of Kristi Wrigley.

We then spent the rest of the day progressively moving up the watershed on HRC property. We viewed revegetating MAXXAM-era clear-cuts, and second growth redwood stands selectively harvested by HRC over the last several years. The old MAXXAM-era clear-cuts seem to be regenerating, but also appear to be jam-packed with innumerable young tress. HRC’s selectively logged areas, by contrast, largely contained what appeared to be well-spaced and stocked post-harvest.

Elk River Restoration Project on HRC Land. Photo courtesy of Nataynne DeLapp.

We also viewed two stream restoration effort sites along the Elk River on HRC land, where woody material is being placed back in the river to create complexity, flow mediation, and salmonid habitat enhancement.

That evening, EPIC’s Rob DiPerna joined Elk River resident Kristi Wrigley on KHSU’s Thursday Night Talk program, to discuss the issues in Elk River and our day in the field.

The question arose, in one form or another, throughout the day about whether or not contemporary logging practices and associated activities have improved, and whether or not these improvements are adequate to address sediment production from the contemporary operations. In other words, just because the logging may be “better” does that then mean that it is benign in terms of its effects on Elk River? However, the more important question is whether any logging at all is appropriate in Elk River in light of the extreme and significant cumulative impacts that have occurred over the last 25 years in the watershed. These more important questions form the foundation of the true discussion over contemporary logging in Elk River.

EPIC wishes to thank both Elk River resident Kristi Wrigley and HRC for an informative day of discussion about the environmental and human rights issues in Elk River. EPIC is dedicated to working with stakeholders to seek common ground and foster dialogue, while advocating for best forest and watershed management practices to protect and recover the river for fish, wildlife, water quality, and humans alike.

Part one in a six-part series. Future articles will focus on the following topics:

2) Vital statistics about Elk River; 3) Cumulative impacts; 4) Management regimes; 5) Legal and regulatory frameworks; and 6) Social issues.