Just below the Appalachian Mountains, on the East Fork of West Virginia’s Greenbrier River, a remarkable change is underway. In a watershed where the land is so green and thickly forested that the water takes its color from the trees, there has been a comprehensive push to restore and open its waterways to a more natural state, allowing fish to move freely and improving conditions for all wildlife.
“It’s really beautiful Appalachian forest land, and with so many species in this one area it’s a really valuable place for us to do conservation work with our partners,” said Callie McMunigal, Regional Fish Habitat Partnership Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For the last five years, Trout Unlimited, the U. S. Forest Service, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working together to restore the many branches of the Greenbrier watershed, which have long been constricted by aging infrastructure. The effort has improved habitat for native species like brook trout in some 50 miles of river, transforming the area into a hotspot for local anglers and making it one of the largest conservation endeavors in West Virginia’s history.
“We’re opening a great deal of diverse ecosystem for West Virginia,” said Gary Berti, Director of Eastern Home River Initiatives for Trout Unlimited. “It’s a commitment to doing what needs to be done in the long term.”
The watershed was one of the Forest Service’s highest-priority areas targeted for restoration, as it has long been riddled with decades-old pipe culverts that were either perched (too tall), pinched (too small), or were deemed hazardous in the event of a flood. Mike Owen, an aquatic ecologist with the Forest Service, compared the pipe culvert design to the middle of an hourglass, restricting anything trying to pass through.
“It can make things really hard for passing fish, particularly brook trout as they tend to travel quite a bit within the watershed,” said Owen.
Most of the projects included replacing these culverts, installing new bridges, and clearing other obstructions so the river and its tributaries can experience a natural flow. Several of the culverts were replaced with open-arch designs, which allow the river to pass through its full width.
In addition to work on the riverbed itself, Trout Unlimited oversaw extensive tree planting, which will help provide shade and create colder water for brook trout, habitat the species relies on year-round. Crews also wiped out more than 100 miles of unused roads and trails in and around the watershed, recontouring the slopes beside the river to reduce erosion and promote proper water drainage on approximately 85,000 acres of land.The reshaping will also help guard against drought, as well as providing natural flood resistance during future storms.
“If we do these things right, then nature does the work for us,” said Owen. “The system should largely sustain itself and continue to improve as time goes on.”
And nature has not disappointed. Mere weeks after projects were completed, brook trout and other fish were found both above and below the work sites, areas where their populations had previously been sparse or nonexistent. While the Greenbrier has always been a popular area for locals to fish and hunt in the surrounding woods, the projects’ effects have been dramatic enough to bring anglers out in droves.
“Every time we go into the field, we get claps on the back,” said Berti. “People have started bragging about the number of fish they caught. I’ve met folks who told me they caught 80 fish in a weekend.”
But brook trout are more than a great recreational fish, Owen said, adding that biologists often refer to them as an “indicator species,” meaning that the strength of their population often represents the health of the ecosystem as a whole. And where brook trout are abundant, the entire river system and the life it supports – including people – reap the benefits.
“As go these species, so others go,” Owen said. “That makes it particularly important to make sure that they can get the most out of this habitat. It can create a big ripple effect for the entire ecosystem.”
The restoration was the first of what Berti hopes will become a model for future projects. On the Greenbrier, partners planned the entire restoration more than five years in advance, with funding secured for each individual piece of the project by the end of 2012. This allowed partners to look at the Greenbrier on a watershed scale, rather than trying to restore the river piece by piece. And as with anything bought in bulk, funding the projects in a large batch made them much less expensive, saving the Service and partners thousands of dollars.
“If there’s nothing else you take away from this, it’s that these partnerships work. This all would not have been possible without so many of us coming to the table,” said Berti. “We were all just eager to get it done.”
While initial results have been promising, there is still work left to be done. Several more projects are already planned for the watershed, which will open further sections of the Greenbrier so that species may roam freely.
“It’s a huge undertaking, but we believe that it’s worth the effort. It’s kind of the thrill of a career to try something like this,” said Owen.
Since 2009, the Service and partners have removed or replaced more than 507 barriers to fish passage from Maine to West Virginia, reconnecting more than 4,020 miles of rivers and streams and 19,300 acres of wetlands. Partners across the Northeast have matched the Service’s funding contribution nearly 5 to 1, contributing $56.1 million to the Service’s $12.5 million to restore aquatic connectivity for wildlife and protect communities.