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Originally published March 26, 2012 at 8:13 PM | Page modified March 27, 2012 at 1:36 PM

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Man giving nature a helping hand in laying a new Elwha carpet

As the reservoirs behind the two Elwha River dams drain, hundreds of acres of inhospitable mud flats are emerging that must be replanted.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ELWHA RIVER, Clallam County — They may not look like much, but these are brave pioneers.

Recently planted in the shifting sands, tight silts and mixed jumble of sediments, these native plants are among the first colonists of some 800 acres gradually emerging from the reservoirs backed up by the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.

National Park Service contractors are taking down the dams to restore the productivity of the Elwha River and its watershed. Elwha Dam, the lower of the two, is already out. The upper dam, Glines Canyon, should be gone by this time next year.

As crews keep working and the reservoirs drop, a new landscape is emerging. Normally, in nature, plants would quickly move in, borne of seeds blown by wind, dropped by animals in their scat, carried by water, or sprouted from seeds and roots already in the soil.

Not here, said Josh Chenoweth, botanical restorationist for the Park Service.

Out on hundreds of acres of sediment flats, there are no seeds, no roots, and nothing growing nearby to lend a seed or a rhizome to get things started. Nothing, in the sun-baked, open, wind-blasted sediment flats, to draw animals that might leave seeds in their scat. Not even any soil in which to grow.

As far as revegetation efforts go, it's an unprecedented situation, Chenoweth said. "There is no example of plants living in silt and clay 5 feet deep in a dry environment."

But weeds are bound to move in — the herb Robert and others already are. So the Park Service, as part of the overall restoration plan, has launched a replanting project, intended to get ahead of the weeds with native plants that can take the punishment of this inhospitable site.

This is the first year in the $4.1 million, seven-year replanting effort. The Park Service intends to plant more than 400,000 bare-root plants and 5,000 pounds of seed from a wide range of some 80 native species of shrubs, trees, forbs and grasses, all raised from seeds gathered in the Elwha Valley.

The emerging sediment flats, inundated for a century by the reservoirs, do have some advantages. The landscape is surrounded by miles of robust, verdant native forest.

Its seeds will rain down on the land, falling and blowing out as far as about 160 feet from the former shore, allowing that area to naturally regrow. The flood plain, too, is expected to take care of itself, as seeds are borne on the water to the land.

The problem is everywhere else, where there are hundreds of acres of sand and fine silts too far from natural seed sources to regrow on their own. The fine silts are especially tough going. Silt and clay, layered 5 feet deep and more, with no sand at all, are greasy and slick when wet, and last week were already starting to crack and harden where the blowing, floury material dried out.

So fine are the particles that everything that comes near them is powdered with a sepulchral gray dust. Come summer, "It's going to bake like a brick," Chenoweth predicted.

Chenoweth led the planting of 30,000 bare-root plants beginning last November, and continuing through early March. The idea was to take advantage of the winter rain and give the plants a chance to grow roots before the ground starts to bake.

In such places, even alder, that standby colonizer, fails. In test plots, 28 of 30 died. The two survivors struggled.

But nature is resilient. Blue wild rye planted in the stuff soldiered right on.

Soft pink, six-petal Nootka rose and ocean spray, a shrub with creamy-white flowers, also have proved indomitable in trials, despite their delicate appearance.

Elk and deer are another challenge, as they re-establish travel patterns in the bottom lands that were their home range before the dams were built, beginning in 1910.

On a recent day the planting crew watched as an elk sauntered along, pulling up more than 100 plants, seemingly just to see what would happen, then leaving them lying on the ground. "We replanted them," Chenoweth said. "But we have to get out here before we have major travel patterns established. If an elk herd moves in, we have big trouble."

To frustrate the elks' nibbling, the crews tucked plants among stacks of woody debris left behind by the dropping reservoirs. They also surrounded tasty species such as cedar with thorny plants.

The Park Service will use a helicopter to move some of the really big wood out onto the lake bottoms. That will provide important shade and windbreaks for emerging plants, as well as protection from grazing animals.

Sometimes, the plants themselves will provide what little succor is available. By deliberately planting some areas intensely, the plants on the outer edges of the planted area will shelter those within.

For now, it's a challenge even to know what form the land will take. One terrace Chenoweth intended to plant in the Lake Mills delta this season was mostly gone just two days later, when the river shifted course and sluiced most of it away.

Canyons crack open where seeps find their way across the delta. One of the first things crew members had to learn was how to lie on their backs and work their feet free when they started to sink in the quicksand of fine sediment. Over time, the landscape will stabilize.

At this early stage in the project, Chenoweth defines success as native plants naturally regenerating themselves, across all zones of the exposed landscape, by the end of the seven-year planting period.

For now, there are many acres of land still underwater, and years to go before the gray gives way to the green.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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