Restoring Forests Through the Elk Creek Watershed Restoration Partnership Project
NRCS Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Tiller Ranger District, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and other project partners worked together to establish the Elk Creek Watershed Restoration Partnership Project.
Nestled beneath the dense forests in Douglas County, Oregon lies the Elk Creek Watershed. Planned and natural fire has historically played an integral role in the area, shaping the watershed, forest environment, plant and wildlife communities. Forests in this region were not only adapted to frequent fire disturbance but dependent upon it to recycle nutrients, regulate plant succession and wildlife habitat, reduce biomass, maintain biological diversity, and control insects and disease.
However, decades of fire suppression and limited logging have led these forests to become uncharacteristically dense, accumulating excessive fuel loads in the form of timber. This shift from the historic norm of low-intensity, stand-maintaining fires has caused a trend toward higher-intensity, stand-replacing fires which threatens the livelihood of local residents, infrastructure, the ecosystem and economy.
73 percent of Douglas County is covered in these diverse forests primarily made up of douglas fir, oak madrone, and ponderosa pine that cross public, private and tribal land boundaries. In 2019, Oregon's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Tiller Ranger District, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, Oregon Department of Forestry and other project partners worked together to establish the Elk Creek Watershed Restoration Partnership Project.
Funded through the USDA's Joint Chiefs' Landscape Restoration Partnership program, project partners developed plans that complemented and expanded upon previous watershed restoration work in the area. The collaboration among partners allowed for cross-ownership boundary restoration work across approximately 55,000 acres to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, increase forest resiliency and restore the watershed and forest ecosystems to encourage wildlife habitat.
The Elk Creek tributary of the South Umpqua River has long been used by generations of Cow Creek Umpqua people as a critical source providing foods and values necessary for life. Working with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians enabled the Tribe, NRCS Oregon and the USFS to conduct restoration work focused on wildfire risk reduction while restoring cultural values of the area. Thinning encroaching douglas fir stands across the tribal land reduced fuel loads and allowed older growth species like the ponderosa pine, madrone and oak trees to prosper without significant competition. Thinning work also opened up meadows and oak savannas, encouraging wildlife back into the area. Today, culturally-significant plants are growing for tribal members to gather and deer, bears, elk and other wildlife are returning back into the area.
Success at the landscape level across ownership boundaries requires support from numerous players invested in a healthy and resilient forest ecosystem. Other project partners include Douglas County, Partners for the Umpqua Watershed Council, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Oregon State University Extension Service, and local private landowners and industrial forest landowners. Together, project partners leveraged over $13 million to conduct restoration activities in the Elk Creek Watershed basin and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
Over the project’s lifespan from 2019 to 2023, project partners thinned overly dense stands of trees from prioritized areas to reduce the threat of wildfire for 500 homes, representing approximately 2,500 residents. This work successfully reduced the severity of the subsequent Cameron Peak fire, protecting four communities from wildfire. Removing dense plant material also provided better ground forage and winter habitat for species such as elk, mule deer, and wild turkey that are tied to the local culture and tourism economy. By working closely with partners and the community of Tiller, this Joint Chiefs’ project enabled the installation of two new bridges, replacing culverts that were vulnerable to flooding and unnavigable for fish. This allowed brook trout access to 1.5 miles of prime waterways in the National Forest and protected nearby homes from potential flooding.
The USDA’s Joint Chiefs' Landscape Restoration Partnership enables NRCS and the USFS to collaborate with agricultural producers, forest landowners, tribes and public land managers to invest in conservation and restoration at a big enough scale to make a positive difference. Working in partnership, and at this scale, helps reduce wildfire threats to communities, protect water quality and supply, and improve wildlife habitat for at-risk species.
Watch the video above to learn more about the project and the successful restoration work conducted with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians partners.