A River Reborn

The American Restoration Movement Brings Streams–and Communities–Back to Life
Plumas Corporation

For Jim Wilcox, an autumn afternoon on Greenhorn Creek turned into a fisherman’s bonanza—and he didn’t even have a pole. Five years ago, Wilcox, a logger turned hydrologist, found one trout in this mountain stream, a tributary of the Feather River in northeastern California. Last fall he counted 59—rainbows and German browns, half of them over 10 inches long.

Greenhorn Creek’s transition from near death to well stocked is not just fishermen’s fortune. Wilcox is part of a grassroots alliance which has devoted time, energy and all the science it could muster to restoring the health of this stream and the entire Feather River watershed, an area as big as Rhode Island. Since 1985, the Feather River coalition has controlled erosion on 38 creeks and contributed $5 million to the local economy. It is one of the oldest and most accomplished natural resource alliances in the nation.

But it is no longer unique. In rural communities across the country, watershed partnerships among agencies, landowners and citizens are popping up like mushrooms after a drilling rain. “The movement is called American Restoration and it is an act of faith,” says Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior. “As American communities use our laws to restore their waters, those waters, in turn, restore our communities.”

* In eastern Idaho, severe sedimentation in Henry’s Fork galvanized a group of citizens to create a comprehensive plan to manage more than 3,000 miles of river and irrigation canals near the southwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park. The Henry’s Fork Watershed Council brings together 25 often antagonistic groups to solve problems caused by cattle grazing, irrigation diversions and siltation. Rob Van Kirk, research director, says, “Our mission is to understand, restore and protect.”

* In Trimble, Ohio, the Monday Creek Restoration Project is taking on the social and environmental devastation left by over a century of coal mining. Jerry Iles, a VISTA volunteer who serves as assistant coordinator, says “mining provided jobs but left heavily acidic water—some streams are bright orange. We are trying to teach that restoration pays.” The project set simple goals: swimming and fishing in Monday Creek. Achieving them has involved stream sweeps, log-jam removals and tree plantings, as well as abatement of acid mine drainage.

* Two groups formed in Cuba, New Mexico to address pollution washing into the Rio Puerco watershed, a 2.2-million-acre swath running from northwestern New Mexico south to the Rio Grande. The Rio Puerco Watershed Interagency Group, whose membership includes farmers, ranchers and agency landowners, develops scientific information and is collecting historic photographs to create a pictorial study of watershed changes. It plans to get involved in on-the-ground projects that support both economic growth and stability of the Rio Puerco.

In California, the Feather River alliance held its first meeting in an atmosphere of deep distrust. Decades of free-wheeling timber harvests on forests throughout the West had triggered a barrage of environmental lawsuits. The ensuing battle was wreaking havoc on small towns in Plumas County, where Wilcox lives. The group formed to protect the Feather River was not an obvious alliance. Its members were traditional enemies: loggers and environmentalists; ranchers and state officials; anglers and the Army Corps of Engineers. They one thing they shared was a deep knowledge of the local watershed and the hope that it could be reborn.

Wilcox was hired as a project manager by the newly created Plumas Corporation, a county nonprofit development corporation coordinating the activities of the alliance. He bought a pair of hip boots and headed for Greenhorn Creek. In 1991, the stream was a sad little trickle sputtering past a graveyard of car bodies crushed into barren and deeply eroded banks. No one had caught a trophy trout in years.

Bob and Dorthy Farnworth, owners of a 230-acre ranch straddling Greenhorn Creek, had tried to halt the loss of topsoil, fish and wildlife habitat but without much success. In frustration, they turned to the Feather River Alliance for help. The group accumulated $400,000 by scratching together grants from a local developer along with funds from state and federal agencies. The restoration project along a half mile of Greenhorn Creek was designed as a model for managing the fishery and surrounding pasture land.

Wilcox spent five months in and around Greenhorn Creek. He supervised bank stabilization and construction, which returned the natural meandering path of the creek. He helped create a grazing management plan, installed a recreational trail, and set up a monitoring program with the help of a local high school. Then he waited. Five years. When he tallied the fish count last year at 500 trout per mile, Wilcox came as close to dancing a jig as his waders would allow. “We started out wondering: If we built it, would they come? They sure did,” he says.

What has worked in the Feather River watershed can work anywhere people are committed to the future of natural resources, says Leah Wills, an economist with Plumas Corporation who has coordinated the alliance since its inception. The first battle, she says, is to change the mindset and begin the long-term investment in natural resources that can stabilize rural economies. “If we take care of our resource base, it will take care of us-the same way any entrepreneur’s capital pays dividends for good management,” she says.

The partnerships forming from Alaska’s Kenai River to the Florida Everglades are demonstrating a process for making management decisions which include local people whose experiences have generally been ignored. “We’re all responsible for the wrecks we create or prevent,” says Wills. “If we’re really serious about this new democracy and a reinvested government, it’s going to take a huge structural shift.”

Dangling his feet off a log over Greenhorn Creek, Wilcox is keeping time with the bobbing of a dipper bird dining in the rushing water 10 yards away. A winter’s storm may wash out sections of the bank he has rebuilt. Drought may slow the return of the trout. But the process for restoring creeks like Greenhorn has sent its roots deep into communities across the country. “I will be here in this watershed doing just what I’m doing until I keel over,” Wilcox says.