Restoring a Montana Spring Creek

Friday, July 9, 2010

by Verlyn Klinkenborg, NEW YORK TIMES, July 9, 2010

dreamstime_10993292 A couple of weeks ago, I walked along a spring creek in the upper Madison Valley, just south of the town of Ennis, Mont. As my guide, Jeff Laszlo, explained, the creek is one of the unnamed tributaries of the Madison River, fed by innumerable springs along the valley’s rich bottomland. The creek meanders for miles before it reaches the Madison, gaining water, providing spawning grounds for fish and invaluable wetland habitat for birds. I looked on in disbelief, because the section we were hiking — nearly eight miles of cold, clear waters — did not exist before 2005.

Or rather, it existed until 1951, when Jeff Laszlo’s grandfather dewatered this section of land by digging canals to draw the water along the edge of one of the alluvial benches that define the Madison Valley. His purpose was to move water to other sections of his ranch and to improve the grazing. In the narrow agricultural logic of the time, his ditches made a certain economic sense. And if it seems strange that his grandson would undo all that work 60-some years later, Laszlo notes that he is simply obeying a different economic logic — one that considers increased biodiversity to be one of the ranch’s most important assets.

Restoring this stream was not simply a matter of diverting the water back into its old channels. It was an intensely collaborative process, involving more than a dozen state, federal and private partners — including the United States Department of Agriculture, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, the local power company, PPL Montana, and the Trust for Public Land.

And it was a major construction project, requiring the precise engineering of new streambed and shallow backwaters and the careful laying and planting of new bank sod and willows. Photographs of the construction show an almost nightmarish scene — excavators hard at work in what looks as much like the digging of those old canals as the restoring of a stream.

But wherever I looked, I saw only nature, even in sections of the stream that were restored just last year. The speed with which this habitat — aquatic and terrestrial — has altered itself has surprised nearly everyone.

Within weeks, trout began to move up from downstream, and they are now abundant. Water temperatures in the stream have dropped significantly, and daily variation in temperature has decreased. The subterranean water table has risen, and bird populations have greatly increased and, more importantly, diversified. Aquatic insects are again proliferating.

The hope is that this restoration will serve as a model for landowners farther downstream — and, indeed, wherever wetland habitat can be restored. The critical point — one that Laszlo emphasized repeatedly — is that the restoration could never have been accomplished without the collaboration of private and public partners. It has been a test not only for him and the organizations and agencies that have worked with him. It has also tested conventional assumptions about the proper use of public money — which was, in this case, used to help restore private land without providing public access.

But the new spring creek on this ranch, though a private fishing stream, serves many public purposes. It is a wild hatchery for trout that move downstream to the Madison River, a public river. It is a nesting and feeding ground for birds that use these wetlands only seasonally. And it acts as an enormous sponge, retaining and releasing water critical for generating power much farther downstream.

The real beauty is that from the bench above this creek, where a large band of curlews was feeding, I couldn’t tell that man had been at work — not in the past five years and not in 1951. And neither could the birds and the fish. [Link to original piece]

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