Numerous partners joined Keith Burch to save his streambank and give salmon and steelhead trout a better habitat.
By: Carly Whitmore, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist
As water rushes through Lolo Creek in Greer, Idaho, fish swim, dragonflies dance and birds chirp in excitement throughout the newly renovated landscape. An onlooker could hardly tell that a few years ago, Keith Burch’s streambank was eroding so heavily that the access road was nearly gone.
When Burch bought the property in 1991, he never expected to see the amount of streambank erosion that would come along. After years of heavy snowmelt and people camping near the water, the streambank had eroded several feet inland, sending tons of sediment downstream with it. In 2017, after watching his property deteriorate, Burch decided it was time to do something.
“I came down here and [the riverbank] had washed out,” Burch said in an interview. “And so, my initial call was just a call of inquiry. The soil had cut into the bank pretty severely, and my road was disappearing, and I didn't know what to do about it. So, I thought, maybe I better call, just figure out what the options are. And that's when I made the call to NRCS.”
Burch first heard about USDA’s financial assistance programs in the 1980s, when he connected with Farm Service Agency to work on a forest thinning project on another one of his properties. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), known as the Soil Conservation Service then, offers technical and financial assistance to farmers, ranchers and private timberland landowners across the United States. Burch’s first call to NRCS in 2017 connected him with the Orofino Field Office and Resource Conservationist Alex Arnold.
As soon as he saw the severity of the streambank erosion, Arnold knew NRCS was the right agency for the job. This project offered the opportunity to prevent excessive sediment from contaminating water downstream, and a unique opportunity to create fish habitat in the process. And so, the conservation planning process began.
Burch signed up for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers and landowners. This financial assistance helps implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns and for opportunities to improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland.
Lolo Creek is a major waterway for salmon and steelhead trout, ancestral foods of the Nez Perce. Arnold saw an opportunity, through including the Nez Perce in the execution and planning of the project, to both prevent streambank erosion and provide habitat for important wildlife.
In an effort to maximize the effect of any improvements to the streambank and to make the stream more fish-friendly, Arnold and Burch got in touch with Trout Unlimited and the Nez Perce Tribe, who were excited to join the project to help provide safe resting places for salmon and steelhead trout during their long journey upriver.
“The project was only successful because of the large and diverse partnership between Trout Unlimited, the Nez Perce Tribe, NRCS, the Nez Perce Tribe Forestry Department, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, Idaho Transportation Department, Potlatch Deltic Corporation, and the private landowner,” said Aaron Penvose, project manager for Trout Unlimited. “Partnership projects like the lower Lolo Creek project are critical to restoring natural channel function and helping improve aquatic conditions for Endangered Species Act listed species.” Additionally, the Bonneville Power Administration were deeply involved in this project.
Historic management actions in the Lolo Creek watershed reduced the amount of trees falling into the stream. Such large woody debris is critical to instream functions and to creating and to maintaining habitat complexity. The Lower Lolo Large Wood project is an important restoration project which will improve adult spawning and juvenile rearing areas in federally designated Critical Habitat for ESA listed Snake River Steelhead.
So, Trout Unlimited, the Nez Perce, NRCS and Burch joined together to create a “day spa” for fish in addition to providing physical protection of the streambank. Using trees and fallen limbs along the streambank, Burch created deflectors that allows the stream to flow around and away from the streambank while providing small, still pools for fish to rest. Justin Peterson, Project Leader with the Nez Perce Tribe explained, “The completed project increased instream complexity by installing two large wood structures as well as utilizing bioengineering techniques to improve the riparian area and floodplain.”
Burch, to try to provide even more space for wildlife in the area, offered to close the small access road from the streambank to the main road. This access road had been a commonly used camping spot, where people would deposit garbage and disturb the streambank. Closing the access road prevents people from reaching the stream easily and protecting the species and infrastructure Burch has worked so hard to construct.
This project saved Burch’s streambank and protected valuable ancestral aquatic species in Lolo Creek, and it created a beautiful and peaceful landscape for Burch and his family. “I think this is the perfect project. It was the perfect project for me. I see no problems at all with it. I mean, from start to finish, it was just beautiful, and it was so easy,” said Burch.
His efforts are vital as the current trends in estimated natural-origin steelhead adult escapement into Lolo Creek are at historic lows, and recent modeling by the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resource Management indicates the Lolo Creek population may be at or below the NOAA Quasi-Extinction Threshold (i.e. 50 or fewer spawners on the spawning grounds for four consecutive years) by 2025. Peterson noted that these trends are a call to action for increased restoration in the Lolo Creek watershed to avoid extinction of this iconic Idaho species and to protect treaty resources of the Nez Perce Tribe.
As a result, this project has significant impact on communities downstream. From outdoorsmen and fishermen to Native Americans and downstream residents, many different people have the chance to benefit from Burch’s work and vision.