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DNR drops trees in Straight River for trout habitat

Mike Lichter (far left) of the Park Rapids Area DNR Forestry office briefs the crew on the day's operations. (Nicole Vik/Enterprise)1 / 3
The ground crew prepares the trees to be hauled down the river. (Nicole Vik/Enterprise)2 / 3
The helicopter hauled trees averaging 1,200 pounds that were felled by the DNR Forestry. (Nicole Vik/Enterprise)3 / 3

Trees were flying through the air Monday morning as the Park Rapids Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Fisheries and Forestry Offices collaborated with staff from Bagley, Bemidji, Cass Lake, Princeton and Detroit Lakes to complete trout habitat management work along the Straight River, with the help of Minnesota Helitack.

After a briefing with nearly 20 crew members present regarding procedure and safety precautions, the work began.

The Straight River runs approximately 17 miles from Straight Lake in Osage all the way down to where it joins the Fish Hook River south of Park Rapids.

The DNR has done several projects at different locations along on the river in 2006, 2007, 2011, 2015 and again this year.

The completed projects have been done along the stretch of the river from the Hubbard/Becker County line down to Hubbard County Road 115.

A lot of the sections that needed work were spots in the river that become wider than they should be for the size of the stream and with that the river gets very shallow. It also drops a lot of silt and sediments that the river is carrying and the river bottom becomes soft, shallow and mucky, conditions unsuitable for trout.

The structures, which consist of three to four trees bundled together in a sort-of triangle shape, are dropped on the shoreline with the use of a helicopter and extended out into the river.

DNR Fisheries places a stake where they want the tree placed and by communicating with the pilot through a radio, the pilot will then position it.

Because the trees are heavy enough and the conditions of the river keep the current slow enough, it is unnecessary to secure the trees.

Once they are in place, the sediment then begins to accumulate behind the structures. The trees push the river out around the structure, forcing the speed of the river to pick up, which then narrows the river to scour a hole along the structure and create a deeper habitat for the fish.

Cattails then begin to grow to stabilize the sediment that had accumulated behind the structure.

According to DNR Fisheries Supervisor Doug Kingsley, the first project was completed in 2006. The helicopter that was used was smaller and unable to lift the weight of the trees. The trees then had to be cut and did not extend out into the river as far as originally planned, but they were still effective. The crew put in seven structures which cost roughly $10,000.

A bulk of the cost was from the use of the helicopter and also to hire someone to skid the trees out that were cut by DNR Forestry.

In 2007, they used a larger helicopter capable of carrying the weight. Once the trees were placed by the pilot, they were bundled together with three trees per structure in order to move further out into the stream. They placed eight structures which cost another $10,000.

"We did find out that it was working fairly well," Kingsley said about the positive changes after the first two years.

In both 2006 and 2007 the majority of the work was done along private lands. The DNR had obtained easements along certain stretches to allow anglers to walk along the shoreline without having to obtain permission from the private landowners.

According to Kingsley, the Straight River Trust Committee is a group that was put together to manage and oversee an endowment that was made by a gentleman who used to fish the Straight River.

In order to maintain the trout fishing in the river, he set up a trust fund so the proper entities could continue to do work on the Straight River.

The DNR has received funds from the trust to do a portion of the work on the river. They used the monies donated from the trust to match funds and obtain further funding from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, with the help of Trout Unlimited.

Thirty-three percent of the sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment is distributed to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, those funds are then spent on projects to restore, protect or enhance wetlands, prairies, forests and habitat for fish, game and wildlife.

By 2011, a few spots from the 2007 project where trees had lost branches over the years, needed to be re-done. They created five new structures to supplement the old structures for a cost of about $5,000. They also moved further down the stream and added 19 structures in a particularly wide area for a cost of nearly $10,000.

In 2015, they added 32 new structures along the river and fixed three old structures for a cost of $15,000.

"This year, we're going to go further upstream and add some structures up there and then come down and supplement some of the work we did before," Kingsley said.

According to Mike Lichter with DNR Forestry in Park Rapids, the crew used 130 loads (trees) at three separate stretches along the river.

The trees for this year's project, which were donated by R.D. Offutt Company, on average weighed 1,100 to 1,200 pounds with the heaviest tree weighing 1,410 pounds.

There cannot be anything along the flight path, such as roads or houses to avoid serious injury if the trees should break loose from the helicopter.

"DNR Forestry has been really instrumental in helping us. They use these projects as training for their helitack crew that uses helicopters to fight forest fires," Kingsley said. "They also use it as training to fell trees that are used for the project and then to scale them for size and weight so the pilot knows how much he's lifting and carrying. It's been a really interesting cooperative effort."