River 'upgraded' to shelter salmon fry

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SULTAN — Environmentalists moved about a ton of loose timber into a side channel of the Sultan River yesterday, hoping to create deep pockets of cool water where chinook and coho salmon fry can feed and escape predators.

With the help of the state Department of Natural Resources' helicopter fire crew, about 25 pieces of wood — some weighing as much as 2,500 pounds and measuring 12 feet long — were airlifted out of a staging area and into place along a channel of Winter's Creek, which feeds the Sultan River.

The half-mile stream channel was still an exceptional place for fry to congregate before the project, said members of the Adopt-A-Stream Foundation, which headed yesterday's project. But the increased water flows expected from the placement of the logs will be comparable to upgrading from a local motel to a four-star resort, they said.

Money for the project came from two grants: $25,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and $8,000 from the nonprofit Fish America.

"This is a great spot for juvenile salmon to get out of the main stream and find food," said Tom Murdoch, executive director of the local Adopt-A-Stream Foundation. "But we're going to make it a lunchbox for the salmon."

Coho and chinook spend between six months and one year living and growing in freshwater streams before moving out to sea. The Sultan River, with its flows controlled by the Culmback Dam, has become a focused area of habitat restoration because of the number of salmon species that use it.

Now, chinook and coho fry are beginning to grow from nests their parents laid last year. Last fall, record numbers of pink salmon also ran the Sultan River to lay their redds before dying.

Providing the wood was the Snohomish County Public Utility District, which collects about 25 to 30 pieces of timber annually at the Culmback Dam after it floats downstream. In the past, wood was burned, but PUD biologist Keith Binkley said yesterday's project is a better use of the material.

"We provided about three to four truckloads and now believe we can spread the word to other groups that we've got it," he said.

The wood, which will be anchored into the stream bed today, should last about 30 years, said Tom Hardy, an Adopt-A-Stream field coordinator. That's enough time for about a thousand seedlings planted along the channel earlier this year to mature. Another thousand seedlings will be planted this fall.

"We're speeding up the process for the salmon," Hardy said. "Since most of the conifers — which provide the best debris in a stream — were removed, this will provide shade and cover in the meantime."

For the helicopter fire crew, yesterday's work was, well, just that, another day at work.

"If we weren't out here moving logs, then we'd be practicing on concrete blocks," said Dave Doan, DNR's aviation manager.

Not only does the state fire helicopter drop water on forest fires, but it also moves heavy equipment to the fire lines, which often are tight spaces, Doan said.

The helicopter also saved the Adopt-A-Stream weeks of work.

"If we had to move the logs with heavy equipment, we'd have damaged much of the stream bed," said Jan Holbrook, an Adopt-A-Stream fish and wildlife technician. "That's a lot of repair work we've avoided."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com