Becoming Beavers, a Story About Low-Tech, Process-Based Restoration

When confronted with a challenge, whether it be in the natural world or even in a virtual one, we at Mountain Studies Institute (MSI) like to ask, “What would nature do?” This is not asking what we want nature to do, but rather what it already does, what it is perfectly suited to do. A good example is leap year which occurred this year. As humans, we count our journey around the sun in days so imperfectly that we have to add a day every four years. You may think that that’s pretty darn good, pretty darn accurate. However, does the moon not tell time perfectly? Or the seasons? Or the equinoxes? They never need to catch up with an extra day.

The reason I bring this up is that environmental challenges often arise from this misalignment, from doing things that aren’t in harmony with the way the natural world works. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that streams degrade, for example, when we extirpate beavers, channelize the stream, and divert water for irrigation. Too often, though, it does seem to hit us as a surprise, and our response is to collect information so that we can make adjustments. But we need to dig deeper than that and ask ourselves what the root problem is instead of constantly making leap year-like adjustments ad infinitum. We need to do what nature does.

That is the elusive idea of sustainability when it comes to stream restoration which asks us to make changes to ourselves, not to change the world around us.

We often don’t know the consequences of our actions or inactions on the more-than-human world until a critical piece of nature no longer functions, and we have to restore it, not replace it. Such is the case for a degraded stream that is no longer connected to the floodplain, cannot support wildlife habitat, whose streambanks erode, and often runs dry. If we want that restoration to last — and I mean last in a harmonious way, not in a concrete immovable way — it must align with the way nature already works. Nature is not a machine with replaceable parts, but rather an ecosystem of emergence, of dynamic balance. Sometimes that restoration means embodying the missing pieces themselves, where people must become beavers.

Want to know how healthy a stream is? Ask the beavers! If they aren’t there, ask the fish! If they aren’t there, ask the bugs! If they aren’t there, ask the plants! If they aren’t there, well you’ve got a pretty good answer about the stream’s health — not good. A healthy stream has all those features and more. Restoring it isn’t as simple as plopping fish in a stream, planting willows on the streambanks, and parachuting in some beavers — though those can certainly help.

There are quantitative ways to measure stream health, and those measurable pieces need to be paired with unmeasurable but equally important pieces. As we look at the presence or lack of things, the condition of things that exist, and the amount conditions that need to change to have a particular thing come back, we must look at the context in which those measurements are being made, the connections that are subtle and nuanced, and the system as a whole.

At Mountain Studies Institute, we explore a myriad of strategies, monitoring their effectiveness, and exploring questions and interventions that address our environmental challenges. In the case of stream restoration, we’ve adopted a strategy based on nature itself and its beautiful complexity, something called low-tech, process-based restoration (Utah State University has exceptional resources on the subject). That includes beaver dam analogues (BDAs) and post assisted log structures (PALS) which create pools, eddies, riffles, log jams and turns. Those features help promote conditions that help plants establish, reduce erosion, raise water tables, provide wildfire refugia, and establish wildlife habitat.

We at MSI are intimately involved in several stream restoration projects across the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and in northern New Mexico in partnership with incredible organizations and collaboratives, an example of which has already been highlighted by Water Education Colorado in Headwaters magazine article, “Busy as a Beaver,” discussing stream restoration on the Mancos River. Mancos River restoration is a long-term project at multiple sites for MSI and collaborative partners, including Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Mancos Conservation District, Mesa Verde National Park, and private landowners along the river.

Claire Caldwell of Mountain Studies Institute stands atop a finished post assisted log structure in the Mancos River. Photo courtesy of MSI

Additionally, MSI helps coordinate the 2 Watersheds – 3 Rivers – 2 States Cohesive Strategy Partnership, which works across 5 million acres in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico to make forests, watersheds, and communities more resilient. We went to the site of a project on the Rito Penas Negras to tell the story of restoration, beavers, and our relationship with nature.

Overhead view of 2-3-2 Partnership volunteers constructing a beaver dam analog in the Rito Penas Negras. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

The Dirt and Dust is a podcast about places and personalities across southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

We encourage you to listen to that story — the story of stream restoration — in our podcast, The Dirt and Dust, in an episode entitled, Becoming Beavers, which explores the idea of imitating nature to help restore a stream system all in the hopes that beavers come back and do the work themselves, that the dynamism and complexity of the natural system is restored.

I don’t think we’ll be changing leap year anytime soon, but we can change the way we think about the natural world and the role we play as humans. We can strive to work alongside nature, not against it, and hope that someday waterways like the Rito Penas Negras and Mancos River have fish, bugs, plants and beavers.



Alex Handloff with Mountain Studies Institute

Alex Handloff is the Collaborative Communications Manager at Mountain Studies Institute, where he seeks to elevate voices and capture stories within partnerships across southern Colorado and northern new Mexico. Alex likes to think of creative ways that people can communicate and interact in order to have a future we can all live with. And by all, he means people, plants, animals, mushrooms, and everything else.




Read more about more about beavers and stream restoration work in the Summer 2023 issue of Headwaters magazine: “The Healthy Headwaters Issue.”



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