The Same Tools to Destroy and Rebuild

Turtle Pond, Leah Wilson

When I arrived at the McKenzie River Trust Finn Rock Reach restoration site I quickly realized I was unprepared. Wearing Chaco flips and a skirt to an active construction site was a rookie move. I had been under the impression that I would not be able to go into the area so I had dressed to look down from the road.

Daniel took me down anyway. He took my to the portable office where I donned a safety vest and hardhat, looked at some maps, and then I followed Daniel up a dirt road where Phase 2 of the project will provide breeding areas for turtles. Turtles had been living in the ponds created from the previous land owners – a logging company that created the ponds by mining for gravel to use for logging roads. The turtles only had one log to climb onto. They would crowd together on the coveted real estate. If they only knew the bounty of logs they will eventually be enjoying!

Restoration Tractor

A Tool for Destruction, a Tool for Restoration, Leah Wilson

Every now and then Daniel and I needed to step aside to let a yellow tractor drive by. The irony had not escaped Daniel: The same heavy equipment used to destroy the riparian habitat was being employed to reconstruct it. And, at this stage of the project, it appeared that the ecosystem had been further degraded by the machines.

Some of the critics of the restoration also took note of this. Many environmentalists oppose this approach. They feel we have done enough damage with this equipment and the river and land are best left alone to heal itself. On my more pessimistic days about humanity, I share their sentiment. However, I tend to be more hopeful and optimistic about our ability to learn from mistakes and to use tools for restoration, not just for destruction. We have created a situation depriving the river of its ability to deposit sediment. Instead, it digs deeper into its channel, eroding the stream bed. This increases the velocity of the water and sediment has no chance to settle. It has been transformed from a system of deposition to a system of transportation. It would take a major flooding event for the river to be able to jump out of its rut. As long as it is bound, it provides no habitat for salmon or frogs. Frogs and salmon do not have time to wait for a flood of this magnitude to set the river free.

Shovel

Shovel, Leah Wilson

Finn Rock Reach is a Stage 8 restoration site. It is modeled after Stage 0 restoration, a stage that is not able to be accommodated. A highway runs parallel to the McKenzie River and the designated Wild and Scenic river needs to be navigable for boats. Stage 0 restoration would level the floodplain from bank to bank to mitigate the deeply incised channeling, opening it back up for the river to meander, braid, and form ponds. The floodplain is wide at Finn Rock Reach. If Stage 0 restoration took place, the water would become dispersed and too shallow for a boat to float.

The stages refer to the natural progression of stream evolution. Stage 0 is terrain before it becomes affected by flowing water. It is flat, a fresh canvas ready for creative action. Like nature, the stages do not necessarily follow in an ordered progression as the numbers tend to indicate. A river can jump forward and backward like a game of Chutes and Ladders. However, a constructed river with rip rap to contain the flow doesn’t allow for jumping stages. The river, forever creative, is given no option other than to dig deeper.

Tractor

Tractor, Leah Wilson

A side channel branches off of the main stem of the McKenzie and flows to the ponds. from there it flows near the road until it rejoins the river about a mile further downstream. The main stem and its channel have formed an island in between which creates a barrier. The channel is isolated from its main stem.

Stage 0 restoration would rejoin the channel with the main stem allowing for jumping and meandering. But, since this is Stage 8, the channel is not rejoined. Instead, the island is smoothed out and returned to being an active floodplain, yet the river’s bank remains intact. Channeling will occur beside the river, like small kids playing beside each other but not with each other.

It’s not a perfect solution. It’s not going to be as neat and tidy of a story as the restoration of Whychus Creek. How could it be? The McKenzie River has more development including a highway within its floodplain. Humans and all of our needs and problems went into the decisions about how to restore this small length of river.

Same Tools

Same Tools, Leah Wilson

Environmental problems are not a dichotomy of problems with nature on one side and humans on the other. The dichotomy begins to crumble as soon as the concept of nature is removed. The idea of nature creates a distinction between us and it. It is a form of othering. This produces a playground for so many negative outcomes – many of which we find ourselves dealing with now: If nature becomes objectified and separate, it becomes much easier to justify exploiting it; and if nature is natural, and we are distinct from nature, what are we? Are we unnatural? But what if we start to think of ourselves as nature, or discard the idea of nature altogether? How does that change the way we think about restoration and repairing the damage of the past, and not perpetuating the damage in the future? These questions are ones that are starting to be asked. It will take practice, it will take making mistakes, and there will be many voices of opposition like the ones opposed to using the same tools that created a problem to fix it. Asking the question leads to implementing a Stage 8 restoration which is one of those solutions that leaves many people feeling unsatisfied. It might not be the perfect, or even the best solution, but it is a solution that was arrived at by beginning to blur the distinction between nature and humans. How will our relationship with our ecosystems change and how will our decisions be different if the distinction disintegrates altogether?

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