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Community Agriculture Alliance: Back to basics — Natural engineering for forest health

Kaitlyn Vaux
Community Agriculture Alliance
Beaver activity helps create fire-resistant patches in the landscape as climate change drives warmer weather, less snowfall and drier conditions.
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Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about water scarcity and wildfire surplus.

Between the current runoff forecast for the Yampa River basin, projections that suggest peak fire season will start earlier and last longer, and the overwhelming need to improve forest management across the state, it leaves a lot of folks thinking what to do.

How can we help mitigate ongoing drought and wildlife risk, and help forests heal themselves? Well, one important attribute of healthy forests and their watersheds to consider is the “sponge” effect.



Healthy forests act as a sponge, soaking up moisture, slowing spring runoff seasons and releasing water over a longer period, and an opportunity to improve that sponge effect is by doing low-tech process-based restoration (LTPBR) and encouraging beaver activity.

While the LTPBR concept has been around for a long time, the use of low-tech instream restoration structures, such as beaver dam analogs (BDAs) and post-assisted log structures (PALS), has increased in popularity in recent years due to their effectiveness, relative ease of installation and low-unit cost.



The idea behind the low-tech BDAs and PALs is to slow and spread the flow of water, build up sediment to fill in incised streams, and help set the stage for beavers to move back into the system. These low-tech structures may only be appropriate in certain settings; to avoid human conflict with beavers, they are best implemented on smaller streams and in areas with minimal infrastructure.

By adding structural complexity to streams and re-wetting the sponge, we can see benefits such as resiliency to wildfires and drought and improved erosion control and water filtration in the aftermath of extreme runoff events.

Research on the persistence of beaver-created refugia within the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome burn scars showed that there were 2.7-2.9 acres of refugia per beaver dam (for a total of 270 and 1,500 acres, respectively). It also showed that well-connected dam complexes had more reliable refugia than isolated beaver dams.

Beaver activity creates fire-resistant patches in the landscape and this resilience is important as climate change continues to drive warmer weather, less snowfall, and drier conditions.

In the aftermath of wildfires, runoff washes ash, pollutants, and other debris into streams and rivers, as well as soil that vegetation would usually hold in place. Beaver complexes help filter out sediment by slowing the rate at which water flows, and this filtration is crucial for the surrounding ecosystem.

Think of them as the coffee filter that you use to make your morning cup of joe. That filter gives you a delicious beverage to sip on without a mouthful of grounds, right?

In the right setting, LTPBR and promotion of beaver activity can help extend runoff, re-wet the ground sponge, and help mitigate drought and wildfire damage. That, combined with the relatively low-cost of implementation, makes this type of restoration work a good opportunity for our forests and watersheds. If you would like to learn more about LTPBR and how it can be implemented, contact the Steamboat Springs NRCS office at 970-879-3225.

Kaitlyn Vaux works for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.


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