Invasive Scotch broom is disrupting natural forest succession and ruining prime salmon habitat as its yellow scourge spreads along the Hoh River and in other Olympic Peninsula salmon strongholds.
AT THE CONFLUENCE OF ELK CREEK AND THE HOH RIVER, JEFFERSON COUNTY — Jill Silver pushes through a wall of yellow towering overhead.
Undaunted, Silver, a watershed ecologist, shoves the branches of sunny yellow out of the way, following the trail of her attack team of locals with loppers, set to beat back this invader: Scotch broom.
Brought to the United States from the British Isles and central Europe as an ornamental and for erosion control, Scotch broom is a nuisance familiar to anyone in Western Washington, where it chokes pastures, roadsides, fencelines and any bare ground it can get ahold of. Here along the Hoh River and in other Olympic Peninsula salmon strongholds, it is threatening prime salmon habitat.
The plant establishes a monoculture that grows 15 feet in height, and each plant every year can pump out 12,000 seeds viable for up to 90 years. Wiley and tough as wire, Scotch broom quickly occupies new areas, out-competing other plants and preventing normal growth of native species.
Scotch broom loves disturbance zones such as river gravel bars, landslides, roadsides and clearings. These are the very places where willow, alder and, in time, conifer forests should establish themselves. Such native forests provide food for bugs, birds and grazing animals such as elk. They shade the streams and rain nutrient-rich detritus and insects into the water, nourishing fish and a whole suite of tiny lives at the base of the food chain that break down leaf litter and other forest material.
Native forests also provide fallen logs that stabilize banks and build complex, braided channels and gravel bars that salmon need.
Scotch broom destroys all those critical natural processes that a healthy river flood plain needs, displacing the vegetation that should be there, and even changing the very chemistry of the soil. It’s also toxic to grazers, denying native animals food.
The plant is more flammable than native shrubs and trees, stoking the heat and destruction of wildfires. And it does not store carbon like the trees it displaces, such as Sitka spruce and Douglas fir.
Along the Hoh River, Scotch broom seeds introduced in the 2000s, probably from gravel and equipment used in construction projects upstream, are a recipe for a yellow explosion degrading some of the most cherished recreational areas and valuable habitat for fish and wildlife on the Olympic Peninsula.
The moss-cloaked Hoh River is among Washington’s most spectacular places. Clear and wild, never dammed, the river is home to salmon and steelhead, and forests alive with elk and birdsong.
To reach the restoration site where this crew is working, Silver traversed a realm of perfection: cool, pellucid pools and side channels of Elk Creek, a tributary of the Hoh. Tiny coho fry scoot through the water, their shadows slinking across the clean sediment of the creek bottom, where the larvae of caddisfly lumber.
The tadpoles of western toads squiggle, and water skeeters perform a graceful backwoods ballet.
This is the gold standard of salmon habitat, and to protect it, Silver is deploying a two-year, $530,000 state grant under the Washington State Coastal Restoration Initiative and support from other programs and partners to field a crew of up to 25 people here and in other rivers around the peninsula.
The crews work from Lake Crescent to Lake Quinault in three coastal counties and six watersheds on invasive plants including Scotch broom, in a project aptly called Pulling Together in Restoration.
The program restores more than the landscape. Local youth working in the program say it has given them renewed hope for their future in communities where jobs are scarce.
“You can log … or work at the prison, and I’ve seen how that changes my friends, or work at a gas station,” said crew leader Brett Crump, 25, of Port Angeles, a father of two who has been working on Silver’s restoration team for seven years and earned a certification for herbicide application.
Silver makes a point of taking care of her crew, bringing a case of organic apples in her truck and insisting that each crew member eat an apple a day.
To take down the gnarly invader, the crew hand-cuts the Scotch broom trunks to the ground with triple-geared loppers hefty enough to cut stems that can be as big as a small tree. They paint the cut stems with an herbicide safe for the waterside environment, and pile the cut plants in a heap big as a garage. Then it’s on to the next clump — an endless task, and endless source of satisfaction for this crew.
“It’s like the water,” Shaquille Cress, 24, of Forks, said of his work, as he bends into a stem with his loppers. “Equally peaceful and destructive at the same time.”
This is just day seven for him on the crew. So far, so much better than just good:
“I love the fact I’m not in an office, and it feels good knowing we are doing some good for the fish and the environment,” Cress said. “And we’ve known each other since childhood,” he said of his crewmate, Taylor Graham, 22, of Forks.
Tristan Tumaua, 20, Forks born and raised, carefully paints herbicide on a cut stem. It comes from a bottle tucked inside a sawed-off plastic milk jug with its handy carrying handle, a little Forks field ingenuity at work.
Colton Kalebough, 21, also of Forks, said he has been on the crew for two years and likes earning money with a good job paying $13 to $17 per hour, and being counted on to show up and work hard.
“She turned me into a different person,” he said of Silver, who leads with warm but firm instruction.
Silver, executive director of the 10,000 Years Institute, an environmental nonprofit, gently scolds if crew members on their way to the worksite walk past a weed without pulling it. As she does. She is constantly bending over, pulling weeds.
“It’s a compulsion,” she said, her eyes always on the lookout for the next foxglove or Scotch broom.
“How can anyone just walk by? It helps if you make some noise,” she said, giving a hefty grunt as she yanks a Scotch broom from the ground, “That’s another 12,000 seeds,” she said with satisfaction, victory in this battle fought plant by plant.