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‘A beautiful mess’: trees necessary for health of creeks and streams

Times Observer photo by Stacey Gross Youth Conservation Corps member Rachel Haight (right) and Grace Tillotson, seasonal fisheries worker with the ANF, slide a tree down the hillside and into Mud Lick Run using a winch.

“In a fish’s eyes, it’s a beautiful mess.”

That’s how Luke Bodnar, of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC), described the work being done on Mud Lick Run Monday morning. The stream restoration project being completed there is a joint effort between the WPC and the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) to restore the natural balance of wood into area streams.

While trees and logs in creeks may look like a mess, explained ANF Hydrologist Charles Keeports, it’s necessary for the health of the water itself, as well as the flood plains and riparian zones surrounding the streams. Nature would naturally deposit trees into waterways, said Keeports, but over time and with human use of the forest including logging, the amount of wood in local streams is much lower than one would expect to see naturally. The stream restoration project is an effort to “expedite” the natural processes that could take decades or more to complete themselves. A tree or log in a stream blocks the flow of water a bit, said Keeports, which means that sediment and nutrients are cycled more naturally through deeper pools that are created as another function of the structural change to the stream bed. “It improves the water quality, and the habitat,” said Keeports, meaning that, in the long run, wood in streams means more, better, and potentially bigger fish.

“It’s making the stream better for everyone, including the environment,” said Bodnar of the project, which has been ongoing for the past four years. Streams and stream sites are chosen by the ANF and the work is completed using WPC, ANF, and Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) manpower.

The YCC is a federal youth employment program that allows students age 15 to 18 to gain experience doing forestry work in national parks, at fish hatcheries, and in other wild spaces across the country. Students from several districts were out on Monday morning helping with Monday’s stream restoration project. Among them were Rachel Haight, of Kane, Chloe Shaw, of Bradford, Gracie Archer, of Port Allegheny, and Katie Gustafson, of Slippery Rock. Not present on Monday but also involved with YCC are Tyler Mahood and Tyler Guiffre, both of Warren. So far this year YCC students have banded geese, planted trees, and spent time observing eagle habitats and working with archaeologists in the ANF.

Times Observer photo by Stacey Gross Signs like these will be left along various points of the streams being restored, said Charles Keeports, ANF Hydrologist, to let people know that the wood in the streams serves a vital function, and asking that those who encounter it leave it there.

By thinning trees just above the riparian area of the stream, and placing felled trees about twice the diameter of those found adjacent to the stream, Keeports said the natural processes of stream fortification would be expedited. “So we can see some of the benefits sooner.” Overall, he said, the goal is to provide deeper pools and more circulation of nutrients to provide for deeper pools, cooler water, and more biodiversity within the stream. Those three conditions, he said, translate over time to more and larger fish. The change to the stream structure that the trees provide also leads to water flowing further into the flood plain. “It’s basically like storing water in the watershed,” explained Keeports, which helps to slow flood flows downstream and also provides a cache of water when streams begin to dry up during drier periods.

Bodnar’s contribution to the project, is organizing the efforts to get the trees from the woods surrounding the streams and into the streams themselves. The goal is to spend a week or two each year on stream restoration projects such as this, Bodnar said, and it’s not just biology and ecology students in the YCC get to learn when they participate. Using the winches to get the trees from point A to point B gives students an opportunity to learn engineering, physics, and mechanical concepts as well, said Bodnar. And while the goal at every site is basically the same, each site presents its own challenges and differences.

The main point Keeports and Bodnar said they want both YCC students and those who recreate in the areas where stream restoration is taking place is that “wood is good for streams.” In addition to the restoration project itself, Keeports said signage was being added to campsites, recreational areas, and more public spaces as well to explain the project, the benefits it provides, and why it’s needed.

Times Observer photo by Stacey Gross Addition of wood to a section of Mud Lick Run provides habitat and ecological improvement for the wildlife and microorganisms that support fish populations in the stream.

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