What's Up With That? Landscaping looks strange, provides structure

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Hey, what's with all the tree stumps planted upside down and the other strange looking landscaping along Salmon Creek? It sure looks odd. Did my taxes pay for this?

— Anonymous walker

A.W., you're obviously talking about LWD, placed by CPU with TLC.

That is, Large Woody Debris placed by Clark Public Utilities. With Tender Loving Care, of course. (Clark County has done some of the same sort of work along Salmon Creek, too.) Your utility rates probably helped pay for a tiny bit of it -- but the lion's share came from state Department of Ecology grants.

Jeff Wittler, the environmental resources manager at Clark Public Utilities, wrote in an email that large woody debris "is now a typical component of most stream restoration projects." Nature, left to its own devices, tends to drop wood all around and within streambeds in a random and haphazard fashion, he said. "As stream restorationists, we try to do the same," Wittler said. "Most ecologists now feel that large woody debris and material is just about as vital to stream health as the actual water in the stream."

Wittler said scientists have estimated that streams "not impacted by European settlement" used to contain up to 700 logs and rootwads per lineal mile. "It's one of life's little ironies that since the early 1900s, LWD was intentionally removed from streams in order to 'decrease' erosion and allow 'fish passage,'" he wrote. "It wasn't until many years later that we really started to see a great deal of stream degradation due to the lack of structure that wood provided."

Structure and wildlife habitat are the benefits of what A.W. aptly calls "strange looking landscaping." Wood that's positioned within the stream itself provides habitat for all sorts of creatures — birds, fish and small mammals. It provides protection from predators and deep, cool pools for juvenile salmon. And it absorbs stream energy, slowing the flow of the water and improving "stream channel structure stability, decreasing bank erosion and avulsion," that is, the waterway cutting itself a new, lower channel.

Some of the wood is donated, but most is purchased through state or other grants that require matching in-kind labor or donations, Wittler said. Those in-kind contributions make up 15 to 20 percent of projects like this, Wittler said, with utility ratepayers shouldering no more than 10 percent. A good source of inexpensive wood used to be construction sites that were being cleared — like the old Bowyer's Par 3 golf course in Brush Prairie, he said — but the slowdown in the real estate market has made that wood harder to come by. Contractors, inmate crews and volunteers have all helped with the labor, Wittler said.

"It looks a little funny," Wittler agreed. "I need to get a sign up there."

— Scott Hewitt

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