The ever-changing tale of Oregon's Bear Creek.
© 1998 By Wayne Elmore, national riparian specialist for the Bureau
of Land Management, Prineville, Oregon.
||October 1996. The stream channel and riparian area continue to
improve. NOTE: There are 10 more photos with this story that show
changes and improvement on Bear Creek, Oregon, over 21 years.
For a copy of Spring 1998, call 1-800-RANGE-4-U.
Riparian restoration and management has been a major issue in
the arid West since the mid-1970s. Early restoration efforts were
mainly the responsibility of wildlife and fisheries biologists
and concentrated on the exclusion of livestock for habitat improvement.
Through experience and research we have learned that the
restoration of our riparian areas affects much more than just
"wildlife and fisheries habitat." These green areas alongside
creeks and streams influence water quality, aquifer recharge,
sediment filtering, energy dissipation, late season stream flows,
reduction in erosion, and rebuilding of the stream banks. This
is accomplished through stream function or the interaction of
water, soil and vegetation. A stream is functioning properly with
the correct hydrology, an adequate amount and right kind of vegetation
is present, and the erosion and deposition is in balance with
Why did it take us so long to begin to understand? One reason
was we concentrated our differences on "values and opinions" and
like someone once said, "Everyone is right from their point of
view." Another reason was we did not have a common way to communicate
our ideas so others could understand our perceptions.
There are many more reasons but these two became large stumbling
blocks toward progress. We now know that to produce the values
that we want from our streams and associated riparian areas we
must have "functioning systems." Only when these basic functions
exist in streams do we produce the values we desire. Otherwise
we continue using up the capital in the system and not producing
any interest to harvest.
Riparian restoration and management is all about one basic
factor-keeping water on the land longer. Everything else we want
from streams and riparian areas are built upon this one simple
The problem is not new. Plato wrote about water running off
denuded hillsides into poor condition streams in 400 B.C. He said
that water was no longer stored in the ground to be released as
springs and streams, but instead ran quickly back to the ocean.
He also said that "the shrines of extinct water supplies serve
as testimony to my hypothesis."
We now face a new two-fold problem. One is the perception
of "instant success" and the other is "near natural rates of recovery."
The first arises from the early comparison of exclosures to areas
that contained improper or poor grazing strategies for the stream.
These areas were usually outside the exclosure. We also tended
to select enclosure sites that appeared to have the potential
for a fast recovery. They commonly had some remnant vegetation,
deep soils, or habitat values we wanted to protect. We observed
some phenomenal changes in our streams when "incompatible livestock
use" was compared to "non-use." However, it still took us many
years to begin to understand the true meaning of these changes.
Near natural rates of recovery arose out of these same observations
and we began to expect all streams to display similar responses
given the same management. We did not include climate, soils,
stream type, present ecological condition, upland areas, valley
gradient, and a multitude of other factors.
Bear Creek in Central Oregon gives us a unique opportunity
to observe a stream over 21 years of change. As you look at the
individual photos of this stream, analyze your own feelings about
what you see. Assume, as you go from one photo to the other, you
are arriving at this stream for the first time and you are having
to rate it on its progress and condition. Think about what you
would expect the stream to look like the next year, what changes
will occur from certain climatic events or changes in management
practices, and, finally, what do you expect the stream to look
like in 1998.
It was in 1976 when I started photographing and working on Bear
Creek, which is located at approximately 3,500 feet elevation
in the high desert of Central Oregon. Precipitation averages 12
inches per year with peak runoff occurring in mid to late February.
Summer thunderstorms are fairly frequent. The area had been grazed
by domestic livestock since the late 1800s and the licensed use
in 1976 was 75 animal unit months (AUMs) from April until September.
Surveys during this year revealed that the riparian area totaled
3.8 acres per mile of stream and was producing approximately 200
pounds of forage per acre. That meant if livestock ate all the
available forage and used 800 pounds per AUM, it took one mile
of stream to support one cow for one month. Stream banks were
actively eroding, the channel was deeply incised, flows were frequently
intermittent, and runoff events contained high volumes of sediment.
The riparian area was storing less than 500,000 gallons of water
In 1976-78 the BLM partially rested the area from grazing
in an attempt to restore the productivity of the riparian area.
In 1979 and 1980 the area was grazed for one week in September
and from 1981-1984 it was not grazed. Juniper trees on the adjacent
hillsides were thinned in 1983 to improve upland conditions, reduce
erosion, and to see if this action would increase willow regeneration.
During 1985 the pasture was divided into three units with money
supplied from the county Grazing Board and labor provided by the
permittee. The grazing was changed from season-long to a three
pasture late winter/early spring use period (mid-February to April
15). These dates normally follow the early runoff events for this
stream system. This allowed vegetation to be present for bank
protection and regrowth of vegetation during the critical summer
months. The regrowth also provided bank protection from summer
thunderstorm events and livestock forage for the following year.
By 1989 the licensed use had increased to 354 AUMs, five times
the amount previously grazed from the area. The livestock permittee
reportedly reduced his annual cost of hay by $10,000 because of
less winter feeding. In 1996 the riparian area had grown to 12
acres per mile of stream and was now producing approximately 2,000
pounds of forage per acre. The production had increased 30-fold.
The filtering of sediments by the vegetation had raised the stream
bed by two-and-a-half feet and we were now storing nearly four
million gallons of water per mile. Stream length (sinuosity) had
increased by one-third of a mile in the three mile stretch, also
helping keep the water on the land longer. Rainbow trout had finally
We have learned a lot about the compatibility of livestock with
the restoration and management of riparian areas since the mid-1970s.
There has been a lot of dissension, anger, myths, and successes,
but we should be proud of ourselves for not giving up and for
what we have achieved. Some of the more important lessons include:
(1) Timing, intensity, and duration are usually more important
than numbers of livestock; (2) Values cannot be perpetuated until
basic stream function is established; (3) The most important factor
in success is commitment by the operator; (4) One grazing strategy
does not fit all streams; (5) Present riparian condition is very
important in setting goals and objectives; (6) Upland condition
must be included in any restoration program; (7) Climate cycles
dramatically affect restoration rates; (8) Droughts are just as
important as floods to riparian recovery; and (9) Restoration
and sustainability of riparian resources occurs only when we utilize
the interest produced in our riparian systems and not the capital.
Last year I gave a talk at a watershed symposium in California
and showed the slides in this article. An ecology professor from
U.C. Berkeley came up to me after the presentation and said, "I
hated your talk. You've messed up my perception of streams and
my mind forever."
There is a lot we need to do, and still to learn, to restore
the functionality of our streams and riparian areas but we can
only do it if we work on the entire stream system together. This
means we have to be able to communicate our thoughts and ideas
and set our biases aside long enough to agree on common goals
and objectives. It has been said, "We are where we are today and
we can be nowhere else; it is where we go from here that counts."
* * *
Wayne Elmore is a riparian specialist for the Department
of Interior, Bureau of Land Management based in Prineville, Ore.
He heads the Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service
and BLM's National Riparian Team. Elmore has walked over 2,500
miles of stream in 30 years. "I want to fix everybody's creek,"
he says. "It doesn't matter who owns the stream or what condition