Emmit Taylor Jr., director of the Nez Perce Tribe's watershed division, gazes out at Packer Meadows on a recent Friday morning, sharing stories about how his people have harvested camas root, huckleberries and moss here for centuries. The gathering of tribal and U.S. Forest Service personnel listens as Taylor explains that watershed restoration is "so much bigger than fish." It's crucial to take a more holistic approach to managing the ecosystem, he explains.
"And I hope that in three, four, seven generations, this area will still be used," he adds.
Everyone standing on this dirt road near Lolo Pass has played some part over the past 18 years in a partnership that has replaced or removed 150 aquatic barriers and decommissioned more than 1,000 miles of roads on national forests throughout the 13-million-acre Nez Perce Treaty territory. The work started in 1996, after a rash of seasonal floods underscored the potential damage washed-out logging roads and plugged culverts could have on waterways. What began as a modest collaboration between the Nez Perce and the Clearwater National Forest has since blossomed into an ongoing series of projects that have so far cost some $40 million—the bulk of that funding donated by the Bonneville Power Administration.
A short drive down the road, Anne Connor, a hydrologist on the Nez Perce National Forest, outlines the extensive work done last year to solve fish passage issues at the Pack II Bridge. Watershed specialists and hired contractors worked to replace an aging culvert with a bridge. The result is a meticulously reconstructed stream channel, its banks already thick with native vegetation. It's just one example of the $6 million worth of work done in 2013 on more than 7.6 acres stretching from the Lochsa River to northeast Oregon.
"One of the highlights [of the partnership] is when I show my children," Taylor says. "We'll go out on these forests and gather roots and go fishing and things like that, and I tell them about a culvert replacement we did."
While Taylor and Connor are proud of several completed projects, they're most excited this day about an 8,000-pound chunk of stone recently delivered to the Lolo Pass Visitor Center. A plaque on the front of the stone details the work done by the partnership since 1996. A map carved into the rock's face depicts the Lochsa watershed. Taylor shares a story as an anecdotal measure of success: While hiking along Badger Creek just down Highway 12 earlier this year, he saw steelhead in the waterway—the first he's heard of there in 50 years.
"But let's not pat ourselves on the back too much yet," he says. "There's lots of work out there left to do."