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Forest Management Plays Part in Effort to Protect Pembina River in Pembina County

Towering timber, with its 100+ year lifespan, may appear to almost manage itself over time.

Loretta Sorenson writes from Yankton, S.D.

But as Brad and Linda Kingery have discovered, small management techniques implemented in timberland can have major impact on both the quality of the trees, the forest and every element of the surrounding landscape.

rafting, bridge

“As a family, we spent a lot of time on the stretch of the Pembina River that flows through our 80 acres in Pembina County,” Brad says. “When we found evidence of 22 beaver dams several years ago, but no beavers. Since beavers will evacuate an area where the ecosystem is unstable, we started looking closely at the health of the land and forest on those acres.”

One of the Kingery’s major discoveries was the severely eroding river banks along their land, which has accelerated in recent years, raised concerns about ongoing loss of land and downstream sedimentation.

“More intense rain events coupled with increasingly-efficient drainage in the riverbed combine to expand stream power and bank erosion,” Linda says.

The Kingerys’ search for answers about how to stabilize and improve the health of their property led them to Chris Nelson, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist in Pembina County.

One major need the Kingery family identified was assistance with maintaining, improving and protecting their forest resources. Because timber stand improvement isn’t a common project in North Dakota, Nelson reached out to the North Dakota Forestry Service (NDFS).

“I recognized that this unique resource concern required specialized expertise,” Nelson says. “Before NRCS State Engineer Christi Fisher conducted a geomorphic study and started working with the Kingery family on this project, I encouraged them to seek technical assistance from the NDFS to take inventory of the forest species, identify alternative practices and establish projected outcomes.”

The Kingerys identified several priorities for their timberland, including biodiversity and habitat, carbon sequestration and climate resilience, quality timber production and improved bank stability. Derek Lowstuter, NDFS Forestry Restoration Specialist, visited the property and developed recommendations to address these concerns.

“Hazel trees were the most undesirable trees in this timber stand,” Lowstuter says. “We also found that canopy created by some of the dominant trees didn’t allow for regeneration of desired tree species. Due to erosion and incision on the river channel that occurred over the past 10 years, we needed to stabilize the banks.”

Kristina Halvorson, Pembina County Soil Conservation District Manager, also worked with the group to help identify funding sources for the project, including funds from the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP).

“Soil conservation districts typically cooperate with NRCS and the Forest Service to help get conservation efforts off the ground,” Halvorson says. “We work together to explore every possible option for funding a conservation project like this and help ensure that it’s completed.”

The Kingerys hope that an engineering design developed by Fisher will be funded. Fisher’s work is focused on restoring the natural stream channel plan, profile and cross section to reduce bed and bank erosion to natural rates.

“The Kingery property is in an area where channel incision and related bank erosion is most dramatic,” Fisher says. “Over the last decade, the channel has incised 8 feet in this reach, as evidenced by exposed bridge footings. A variety of factors contributed to the incision process, but significant ones here likely include historic beaver eradication efforts, channel straightening and levee construction, as well as upstream dams which intercept sediment that would be naturally transported through the reach.”

Fisher notes that channel incision undercuts adjacent slopes, causing both localized bank erosion as the channel widens, with trees falling into the river, taking large chunks of soil with them. Upland slopes, well above the river channel, are destabilized through all this.

Pembina River

“Ideally, rather than treating just a mile of river, a restoration project would involve evaluating channel stability over a larger area to ensure we bring the entire reach back into a stable condition,” Fisher says.

Fisher’s study, part of a PL-566 Watershed Plan for flood reduction projects along the Tongue River, won’t be complete until September 2019. Study participants expect to identify the dynamics of the area leading to severe flooding and erosion.

In 2015, the Red River Retention Authority successfully applied for $12 million in funds from the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The Pembina Water Resource District applied to the Retention Authority for $500,000 of those funds to go toward a PL-566 Watershed Plan for flood damage reduction projects along the Tongue River. As part of that effort, the Pembina WRD, Houston Engineering and the NRCS are now working jointly to evaluate channel stability on the Tongue River from Senator Young Dam to Renwick Dam. That overall assessment will be completed in 2019, and findings presented to the WRD and the project team made up of local landowners.

“One of the goals of the PL-566 Plan is to reduce flood damage to agricultural lands between State Highway 32 and Renwick Dam,” Fisher says. “With the level of erosion taking place on the river channel upstream, that sediment has to go somewhere. Results of the assessment show it’s depositing in downstream reaches of channel and increasing the frequency of flooding in that area.”

Alternatively, the sediment may be depositing on farm fields, or just upstream of the flood pool. Trying to determine what is really happening, based on field surveys and computer modeling, is the point of the current study.

“In addition to increasing flooding problems, unnaturally high rates of erosion and deposition impact roads, bridges, drainage system infrastructure and wildlife habitat. If channel stabilization measures through the reach are determined to be cost effective and practical, as well as supported by local landowners and the WRD, NRCS could provide construction funding through the PL-566 program.

River channels naturally erode over time and develop a measure of instability. However, the results of the severe erosion have impacted the Kingery’s property more than other areas along the river channel.

“The riverbed there has dramatically deepened and widened,” Fisher says. “Because they want to do more than just patch things up, information the Kingerys have gathered and provided has been important to the work being done there. It’s a blessing to work with landowners who have knowledge of river channel systems and important signs of an ecological imbalance, such as the loss of the beavers.”

Renewing the forest on the Kingery property is an important step in managing that area’s ecosystem.

“By giving young trees a chance to establish a strong root system, the soil is more stable and less susceptible to erosion during a significant flood event,” Halvorson says.

Trees with poor form along with some heavy understory were removed from the Kingery’s forest. Since they intend to harvest merchantable trees in the future, red oak trees were also introduced to increase diversity of the stand. Willow trees were planted along the river banks to help stabilize them.

The Kingerys say that Brad’s 30-year experience with the forestry management and the couple’s passion about sustainable land practices helped them recognize that detrimental forces had to be addressed systematically. They knew forest management practices help improve riparian corridor function. However, forest management alone cannot correct stream channel and stream bank instability.

“To me, my forest is my farm,” Brad says. “The life cycle of trees makes this type of ‘farming’ quite different from row crops. We had resolved the overgrazing issues that existed when we purchased the property. Now we saw there was more that needed to be done. Since trees sequester carbon sequestration, maintaining as much of the forest as possible was an important objective for us.”

The Kingerys know it will take more than timberland maintenance to deal with the erosion and ecosystem issues on and around their property. They hope landowners all along the Pembina River and in that watershed will participate in efforts to manage the water flow.

Linda, who gained understanding of geomorphology in past work activities, says they understood that rivers don’t “naturally” deepen and widen, but respond to increases in quantity of flow events, which tend to cause deepening, then widening. They believed there were some aspects of the bank degradation they could help manage.

“Once rivers begin to incise (or experience degradation), they lose connection to their floodplain,” Linda says. “All the energy of the stream works on banks to erode banks. It’s clear that when this starts, it leads to more serious property deterioration. Sediment from the bed and bank are carried downstream. We won’t know for some time how the land will respond to these forestry improvements, but we’ve done what we can.”

The Kingerys believe sustaining the ecology of their land provides benefits far beyond their property boundaries.

“This is way bigger than us,” Brad says. “We would like to see similar steps taken all along our watershed. We hope what we’ve done will motivate others to consider ecological options on their property.”

Nelson, Lowstuter and Halvorson commend the Kingery family for their work in assessing the status of their property and uncovering their options to improve it.

“Brad’s proactive approach to managing this timber stand makes this conservation project stand out,” Lowstuter says. “He realizes that effective management now will mean he can harvest some trees in the future and better maintain the quality of his property and the river function along these 60 acres.

“Throughout the Great Plains there’s a trend to remove trees,” Lowstuter says. “However, this project demonstrates the value of trees and the many benefits they provide. Many North Dakota land owners many not realize what their options are for timber land improvement. NDFS can help identify options and search for funding to implement them. Obtaining recommendations doesn’t mean landowners have to implement a project, but it does help them understand their options.”