KINGS VALLEY -- The Luckiamute Watershed Council has taken one small step to help fish move up the Luckiamute River and its tributaries.
The piers and pilings from the Valley and Siletz Railroad, which operated in the Coast Range foothills of Polk and Benton counties, are now creating dams in the Luckiamute River and its tributaries.
The council last month altered or removed several of those pilings, opening new fish passages to several miles of the river.
Beginning in 1913, as Oregon's logging industry boomed, local entrepreneurs built a 40-mile-long railway to bring timber, farm products and passengers out of the area, a feat of incredible moxy, considering the steep terrain and the wild upper Luckiamute River, which the railroad crisscrossed dozens of times on its way east to the transfer station in Independence.
Nearly a century later, a few of the Valley and Siletz Railroad's trestle pilings in the Luckiamute River -- rails, timbers and ties long gone -- are creating tall dams made up of backed up logs and debris. These dams are changing the course of the river, which is not always an unnatural thing. But when those artificial dams slowed young and spawning salmon and steelhead from swimming upstream, the council decided to step in to make repairs.
The Luckiamute Watershed Council received funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and local landowners to take down several railroad pilings in recent years. The first piling removal was completed in 2008 next to the historic Ritner Creek Bridge, owned by Polk County. The dam created behind those pilings not only cut off most fish movement up Ritner Creek, but also threatened the newly-restored bridge, the only covered bridge remaining in Polk County.
Hearing about the successful removal of the pilings near the Ritner Creek Bridge, Jeff and Teresa King, who had a similar dam build up behind two sets of pilings in the river near their Wildwood Road property northwest of Kings Valley, contacted the Luckiamute Watershed Council. It took two years for the council to study the project and apply for grants to fund it, but this fall the pilings were reduced in size or removed to open passages for fish.
The Kings have a historic story of their own to tell. Teresa's family, the Smiths, owned and operated the property as Fisherman's Camp after World War II. It was a popular set of cabins with a small store that served as a retreat for sports fishers, some of whom included loggers and others who hitched rides to the camp on the Valley and Siletz. A few of the Fisherman's Camp buildings remain, but today the property is an idyllic hideaway for the Smith family, many of whom still live and own businesses in the area.
Most importantly, the project will improve access for young and migrating fish to several miles of upstream habitat in this important part of the watershed, according to Peter Guillozet, project manager for the Luckiamute Watershed Council. The council's four-year fish count indicated this area was one of the most active steelhead and salmon regions in the watershed.
Only a few of the pilings have created dams in the river, according to a review of the structures conducted before the Fisherman's Camp pilings were reduced or removed. The third-party review was required by Oregon's State Historic Preservation Office, whose concern for historic places and structures includes the century-old railway. SHPO officials determined that environmental concerns outweighed the need to keep the Fisherman's Camp pilings. Dozens of the piers and pilings remain in the 40-mile railway to attest to the region's history in the Luckiamute River and its tributaries.