Prairie Creek restoration revives salmon habitat

Project proceeds swimmingly in connecting big fish and big trees

A construction site with a large excavator and a pond
The newly restored section of Prairie Creek features large woody debris that create calm, deep pools where juvenile fish take refuge. Biodegradable netting along the banks holds the shoreline in place while native plants grow. Photo by Garrison Frost.

Interesting fact about coast redwood forests: Researchers studying the tall trees near streams can detect marine nutrients in the wood—nitrogen isotopes that salmon have brought back to the freshwater environment. In other words, there’s a little bit of salmon in these trees.

This highlights the fascinating interdependence between coast redwoods and the salmon species that live and breed in redwood forests. Redwoods help provide the cool, clear streams that salmon need, slowing erosion that would otherwise cause sediment to suffocate the fish eggs in the gravel. The great trees also shade and cool the water, and when redwoods fall into creeks, they create calm, deep pools where juvenile fish can take refuge from predators and fast currents. In turn, salmon supply redwoods and other plants with nutrients from their bodies after they spawn and die in their native waterways.

This positive feedback loop between redwoods and salmon brings us to the League’s ongoing work with several partners to restore a former redwood mill site just outside of Orick, California, adjacent to Redwood National and State Parks. In 2013, the League purchased the 125-acre Orick Mill Site, which is surrounded by some of the world’s largest remaining old-growth redwood groves. Decades of sawmill operations, historical timber practices, agricultural use, and road-building had severely degraded the section of Prairie Creek that runs through the property, creating problems for coho and Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, coastal cutthroat trout, lamprey, and other aquatic life. Salmonids destined to one day nourish the giant redwoods struggled to access floodplain so critical to their survival.

Together, Save the Redwoods League and several key partners, including the Yurok Tribe, California Trout, and California State Coastal Conservancy, decided to change this story. Our ambitious plan, the Redwood Trails Gateway & Prairie Creek Restoration Project, aims to fully restore and showcase the ecological integrity of Prairie Creek and its adjacent floodplain. Once completed, the site would serve as both a climate-resilient habitat for fish and other wildlife, and as the centerpiece of an inspiring visitor experience connecting people to the nearby old-growth redwoods.

Construction equipment removes a dam from a stream while a worker looks on
Aaron Martin of the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program guides the removal of the temporary dam that blocked Prairie Creek while crews completed the restoration. You’ve never seen a team so fired up and invested in the work they’re doing. Their excitement is infectious. Photo by Garrison Frost.

California Trout and members of the Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation and Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program, along with local design and compliance professionals, began the $23 million transformation by removing more than 12 acres of asphalt left behind from the sawmill. Crews then created a 2-acre pond for improved juvenile fish-rearing habitat and later constructed 800 feet of new creek meander with large wood habitat features. To restore biodiversity and climate resilience, the banks of the creek, ponds, and floodplain were replanted with native plant species, including coast redwood, black cottonwood, and slough sedge. This restoration work, which is slated to continue through 2025, was guided by both traditional ecological knowledge and deep expertise in aquatic restoration.

“I’ve never been on a job site like this one before,” said Mary Burke, north coast program manager for California Trout. “I’m incredibly proud of all the skills and capacity this local team brings. Working alongside the Yurok Tribe to restore habitat and support fisheries recovery—to lean into restoring balance—has been deeply meaningful.”

Restoring an active creek isn’t a simple task. As work progressed, crews had to carefully remove fish and temporarily dam the water in a 1,000-foot northern section of the creek before they could lay back the banks, increase the gravel bed depth, and install wood habitat features. This work is technical, delicate, and culturally important for Yurok people, as salmon are essential to their way of life. As proven leaders in watershed restoration, the Yurok team takes great pride in transforming damaged environments into optimal habitat for fish and wildlife.

“This project is super important to us because it’s on our ancestral territory,” said William Bowers, project manager for the Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation. “As Yurok, we’re supposed to give back and take care of nature. What we’re doing here is part of a movement to clean up all the side effects of what’s happened over the years. We’re taking the dams out of the Klamath and working on creeks like this one, because if salmon can’t get up a creek, where can they spawn?”

In summer 2023, crews reconnected the restored channel to Prairie Creek’s new stream meander, so that fish can make full use of the new habitat. California Representative Jared Huffman, whose 2nd Congressional District includes the project site, was on hand to witness the occasion, along with several project partners.

“All the groups pulling together to make this project happen sort of reflect the reciprocal relationship between the redwoods, fish, and water,” said Jessica Carter, director of parks and public engagement for Save the Redwoods League. “We have made amazing progress on site restoration together, and I can’t wait for this special place to be opened in 2026 for everyone to experience and enjoy.”

There’s much work ahead to complete the restoration and construct the new visitor gateway, but the site already looks nothing like it did before work began. Nature is already starting to have its day.


 

Read more highlights from the fall-winter 2023 edition online.

About the author

Garrison Frost is the League's former Director of Communications.

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One Response to “Prairie Creek restoration revives salmon habitat”

  1. El

    Glad to see work continue to improve in the Prairie Creek area. In 1980 I worked w a private forestry co. (New Growth Forestry) and spent months stitching together the 30 acre slide below the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. If we hadn’t it would have slipped down the hill.

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