Rewilding California Rivers
By John Carlon, President, River Partners
California Conservation Corps members implementing a River Partners planting scheme at Dos Rios Ranch.
In 1998, Barney Flynn and I started River Partners with the sole mission of rewilding rivers. We weren’t interested in fighting others to stop the destruction of riparian habitat - the forest that grows along rivers, we wanted to create it. Our plan was to engage farmers and ecologists in river conservation. We didn’t know it at the time but this would be our first step in a long journey of building collaborative partnerships.
Why only focus on Rivers? Because healthy rivers, and the water that flows through them, are the lifeblood of our communities.
Since the Gold Rush we have been trashing our rivers. The 49ers turned them inside out with dynamite and hydraulic mining. A hundred years later we built dams - first Shasta then Oroville. Now we have completely re-plumbed our rivers so that we can sell water. Like a teenager with a credit card we have been on a spending spree with our ecological capital. It has been all about us – spend now pay later.
Our young organization wanted to reverse this trend and make our rivers healthy again. How could a small, non-profit help solve an environmental crisis this big? We would plant trees - a few at first, and then hundreds, and then thousands, and then tens of thousands. We would continue to plant trees until all of the wildlife species that depend on these forests for their survival are safe from extinction.
When most people think of a river they picture flowing water, but rivers are also floodplains - the land where a river is now, has been in the past, or will be in the future. Floodplains filter out pollutants, slow down and disperse flood water, and recharge our aquifers. They are also some of the most biologically productive places on the planet. And our floodplains are literally teeming with wildlife - birds that migrate from as far away as Argentina and the Arctic Circle, and resident wildlife that are found nowhere else. Like canaries in a coal mine when these birds start to disappear our rivers are in trouble.
Ninety-five percent of California’s riparian habitat is gone. As the last remaining blocks of forest die off – they’re not replaced. The natural processes that rejuvenate these forests are altered and our rivers can no longer heal themselves. All attempts to regenerate riparian habitat in California without human intervention have failed. When people tried retiring farmland to let the forest come back on its own all that grew back were weeds. Armed with the belief that we could make native plants grow, we started actively planting back forests, one tree at a time. The mystery was no one could tell us what our forest should look like. We started experimenting, randomly planting different native trees across fields and monitoring the results. As we learned how to match the right tree with the right soil and site conditions we expanded our operation. With our new plant designs our trees grew faster and died less often. We planted more; our hope was that if we could establish a large enough patch of habitat wildlife would move in. Just like in a certain movie, we believed that if we "built it they would come." Gophers and voles were the first to show up. They moved in and ate everything we planted. We survived the attack but learned an important lesson about restoration ecology – you have to be careful who you invite to dinner.
Once we were confident that we could get native plants to grow and survive, we wanted to go big. Our goal was to double the amount of existing riverside forest, to plant 20,000 acres. To do this, we would need to plant hundreds of acres at a time, something that had never been done with riparian species. Utilizing modern agricultural practices we went to work. We tried different planting methods and built customized farming equipment. Most importantly, as ecologists and farmers, we learned to work together.
River Partners now has the capacity to actively rewild a floodplain in three years. In year-one we clear the ground, prepare it for planting, install an irrigation system, and plant the native trees, shrubs, and grasses. In years two and three we control the weeds and water the plants. By the end of the third growing season we have trees 30 foot tall that are able to survive on their own without any further human attention.
As our forests matured our focus shifted to wildlife – were they actually utilizing the habit we created. To help us answer this question we invited biologists to start monitoring our projects. Working together we learned how to arrange combinations of plants into groups that would attract different kinds of wildlife. We continued to adapt and modify our plant designs and wildlife poured into our projects. Fields that supported 4 different kinds of birds before we started had 53 different species three years later. Larger animals moved in as well. In some of our newly rewilded areas we had so many mountain lions that we had to provide mountain lion safety training for our employees.
Planting our first 100-acre project attracted the attention of the agricultural community. Our neighbors worried that our wildlife would damage their crops. Fearful of government regulators they were reluctant to share a fence line with an environmental group that harbors endangered species. When farmers started showing up at public meetings, objecting to our projects, we realized we had a problem.
Before we put another tree in the ground we met with all of our neighbors and listened to their concerns. I think it helped that we spoke farming, but I was still amazed by the results. Working together, we developed projects that benefited all of us. We could buffer their fields from flood damage and they could help us implement our projects. Hiring farmers to work on our projects resulted in larger plantings with better plant survivorship.
Almost all of the land we work on is located inside floodways. After we planted a thousand acres of forest the flood control community became alarmed. Like farmers before them, they showed up at public meetings opposing our projects. The flood engineers were concerned that we endangering public safety by clogging floodways with vegetation. They were worried that the trees we were planting would grow wild and out of control and make their job of keeping flood channels clear much more difficult. Fearful of government regulators they were reluctant to share a levee with an environmental organization that harbors endangered species. Sound familiar?
Our new challenge was to design forests that we could safely plant in floodways that would still provide high quality habitat for wildlife. To meet this challenge we needed the help of engineers. Working together, we identified some remarkable opportunities. Many riparian trees are very flexible and allow floodwaters to pass unimpeded. While floodwaters damage farms and cities it nourishes riparian forests. When we take land out of production and convert it into forest we take it out of harm’s way and provide a location to divert floodwater. Unlike the landowners before us, we are happy to "park" floodwater on our land. This kind of flooding is not only great for wildlife, it also improves public safety. Rewilding rivers is one of the most cost effective methods of flood control.
Working with ecologists, farmers, biologists, and engineers River Partners now restores 1,000-acres a year. Over the last 15 years we have planted almost 2 million trees, rewilding 8,000 acres. People who use to be our biggest critics have become some of our best clients. From San Diego to Redding, songbirds, brush rabbits, foxes, and mountain lions are surviving in habitat we created. Even some of those disappearing songbirds are starting to come back. A least Bell’s vireo, a bird that had not been seen in the Central Valley for 60 years, built it’s nest, and fledged it’s young, in a tree we planted.
We are off to a good start but it’s going to take more work to restore our river’s health. We have to reconnect our rivers to their floodplains and improve in-stream flows. Restoring natural river processes will not only help wildlife, it will also keep our supply of water clean and dependable. Truly, rewilding our rivers will take more than farmers, ecologists, biologists, and engineers working together – it’s going to take all of us.
The above article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of the River Partners Journal.