The 6 Ranch is run by fifth and sixth generation Wallowa Countians. Liza Jane Nichols said the river project will be a value for the generations to come. KATY NESBITT - The Observer
Project puts the bends back into Wallowa River
In English class we learn that the three main constructs of a story are “man versus man,” “man versus nature” and “man versus machine.”
The story of pioneering the West has always been “man versus nature” and the ever-evolving science used to do so.
What biologists and engineers know about fish and their habitat changed drastically over the last century. Even today irrigation diversions and river channeling are becoming friendlier for fish passage, spawning grounds and rearing habitat.
According to the journals of early homesteaders, the Wallowa River migrated naturally back and forth across the valley floor. The construction of the railroad and later roads and highways diverted the river’s channel, submitted it to a more defined territory and altered its river functions.
In some areas the river was straightened, making it flow faster and providing fewer resting places for fish. Faster water can also mean increased sediment, which can affect the habitat of the macro invertebrates on which fish dine.
The Nichols family applied to work with the Grande Ronde Model Watershed on a second project that would put meanders back in the Wallowa River that runs along the 6 Ranch outside of Enterprise.
A river runs through it
Liza Jane and Craig Nichols run the 6 Ranch on Highway 82 northwest of Enterprise along the Wallowa River. When the kids were young, the family wondered what the river would be like if it had more bends in it like when Liza’s great-grandparents ranched the land.
“When my son James was 8 we were fishing and saw the original channel along the terrain of the land,” said Nichols.
Daunting paperwork and bureaucracy made the Nichols family put that idea on the back burner for more than a decade until a day when Liza went fishing with neighbor Doug McDaniels. He had recently completed a river project to improve fish habitat on his ranch.
McDaniels convinced Nichols to look into fulfilling the family dream of re-engineering a stretch of river back to a more natural flow. The family formed a partnership with Grande Ronde Model Watershed and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. By 2009 meanders were back in the river.
Nichols said they left the fishery alone for two years and just started fishing it again this year to give it time to recover.
This fall, the Watershed’s technical committee visited the ranch to determine whether or not to fund a similar project adjacent and down river from the first. If approved, the project won’t begin for at least a year and will take a year to complete.
Coby Menton of the Watershed said Anderson-Perry, a La Grande engineering firm, drew up the pre-design report including a site survey, a map of the area, developed different options for the project and preliminary cost estimates. The goal — improved habitat conditions for listed chinook and steelhead. Of course, the sculpin, white fish, trout and suckers will benefit with slower water as well.
The pre-design report suggested three options for new bends in the river, and the Nichols chose the biggest loop, said Menton. The second phase of the project will follow 2,600 feet of the river about a half mile.
Jeff Yanke, district fish biologist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said there are few redds, or chinook nests, in the river along the 6 Ranch, but slowing down the river may improve habitat for spawning and provide rearing habitat for juveniles.
Yanke said rearing habitat is characterized by slower, deeper pools, good hiding, structure and an adequate food supply of insects. This is important for the first year to a year and a half of a chinook or steelhead’s life before they smolt and head for the ocean.
“The project is to improve river functions, and a well-functioning river has habitat features,” said Yanke.
Large boulders were used in the first project to put bends back in the river. Rocks are stable and don’t “blow out” as easily during floods. Rocks were also used because of the narrow project area, said Menton.
In the second phase there is more room to work so logs will be buried underground with their roots snugged into the banks. These will slow down the river, provide hiding areas for fish, resting pools and good habitat for insects. As the logs break down over the years, more nutrients will be added to the riverbed.
Menton said the project, which will have native shrubs and grasses planted after the excavation, will create a more robust riparian forest and more shade, which will cool the water, an important habitat aspect for fish.
The project will also lift the river bed and give it more access to its floodplain. During flooding, nutrients from the river will be introduced to the adjacent pasture and as the floodwaters subside the water will percolate into the ground.
“Channelizing makes the river an efficient transporter; we are making it an inefficient transporter of water and building it as it would occur in nature,” explained Menton.
Nichols said each generation manages its resources the best they see fit. In 1908, when the railroad was put in, the best thing was to move the river to protect it.
“Everyone believed that was the best thing,” said Nichols. “Now we are doing what we think is best.”
In return for the fishery improvement projects funded primarily by Bonneville Power Authority’s mitigation fund and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board lottery money, the Nichols have given up grazing rights for several years. The added value to their land won’t show up on a balance sheet.
“The cooperation to make this happen is for future generations and for a healthy river and wetlands,” said Nichols.
Jeff Oveson, executive director of Grande Ronde Model Watershed, said he looks forward to doing another project with the Nichols.
“The Nichols family makes for an ideal project partner. They are involved up front, during and maybe most important, after a project is completed. Their assistance with outreach is incomparable. I’m very comfortable that 6 Ranch II is going to be a great project. We will achieve biological, hydrological and sociological objectives with this, the second phase.”
Maybe in 100 years the story won’t be man versus nature, but man living in harmony with her.