In trout projects, ‘restoration’ might not mean ‘natural’ or ‘rehabilitation’

Posted November 13, 2017

When asked how restoration efforts along the Kinnickinnic River should be handled, students and residents in River Falls answered with roughly the same response: they want the river to be more “natural.” This response, however, leads to a different question: What do words such as “restoration” and “natural” really mean, and do definitions of the words match up with what is actually done to environments such as the Kinni?

Abbey Novonty, a junior at UW-River Falls majoring in conservation, said, “I think restoration’s a good idea, and if you can, if it’s possible to restore it back to its natural habitat, I would suggest it.”

Sonja Pearson, a freshman studying exercise and sports science, said, “I think that any sort of nature should be left naturally, because that is how it was meant to be, and when you mess with that sort of natural beauty … it messes up a lot of other things in nature as well.”

Brian Smolinski,a  local trout fisherman and owner of Lund’s Fly Shop, said, “I think a return to natural state is best.” He went on to say, when asked whether he would support restoration efforts that do not support trout habitat, that, “I think there’s going to be a lot of trout no matter what. Especially if the stagnant parts in town are restored back to free-flowing.”

Advocates from the local Friends of the Kinni group have been using the argument that removal of the dams in town would also remove the “stagnant parts” of the river that Smolinski referred to and create a better environment for trout. The Kinni, however, was not originally one big strip of trout habitat.

Long before man-made dams, however, a different bunch of dam-builders was slowing the Kinni. Beavers, said UWRF associate professor of biology John Wheeler, were once common throughout Wisconsin and the U.S. Their damming tendencies would have created pools of warm water interspersed by cold, fast-flowing water.

“If you could get in a time machine and visit the River Falls area 1,000 years ago, I suspect that there would have been more beaver and more quiet, still waters on the landscape,” Wheeler said. “The iconic cold-water ‘trout stream’ would have been less common.”

Not all trout are native to Wisconsin. According to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fact sheets, brown trout are native to Europe and western Asia; rainbow trout are from the Pacific coast of North America. Only brook trout originally lived in Wisconsin pre-human influence, and they would have likely done so only in the cold patches of river between beaver dams.

The WDNR Wisconsin Beaver Management Plan for 2015-2025 recognizes to a degree that beavers have a right to exist within the state. Prior to 1990, efforts were mainly aimed at reducing beaver populations and resulted in severe overharvest. More recent plans attempt to recognize the place of beavers in a natural Wisconsin ecosystem, but they also emphasize the fact that beavers can cause economic and property damage to humans.

The current policy is to encourage beavers only where they’re useful and not detrimental to humans and to discourage them everywhere else through a trapping season and reduction of preferred food trees such as aspen. This improves trout habitat but is not necessarily the “natural” way to go.

Joseph Gathman, an assistant professor of biology at UWRF, said that the public needs to more clearly understand what “restoration” and “natural” mean, especially since the public often indirectly funds projects advertised as “restoration” through tax-funded, government agencies such as the WDNR. In the Mississippi River Basin, a report from 2016 shows that the National Resources Conservation Service invested around $1.2 million toward watershed conservation efforts in Wisconsin.

“The biggest concern I have is calling something ‘restoration’ or even ‘rehabilitation’ when you’re actually trying to engineer the system to produce a particular type of thing,” Gathman said. “In this case, it’s mostly about trout habitat.”

“Natural,” he said, can also be interpreted multiple ways. Restoration efforts along the Kinni could be aimed at getting the river back to the condition it was in before urban expansion took off in town. Alternatively, it could aim to return the river to a pre-European state. A step further would be to put the river back to the way it was before humans – including Native Americans – had any influence on it whatsoever.

Trout habitat, Gathman said, is not necessarily a bad thing. Life typically finds a way to continue regardless of human intervention. The argument could also be made that the conversion of a more common habitat (such as a slow-moving stream) into a rarer habitat (such as a cold-water trout stream) might be justifiable if humans are destroying rare habitats elsewhere and not replacing them.

Kiap-TU-Wish, the local chapter of Trout Unlimited whose name is a combination of the different rivers that the organization protects, puts a lot of efforts into projects around local trout streams such as the Kinni and the Trimbelle. Over the summer of 2016, they spent time working on the “Red Cabin Project” along the upper Kinni. The primary goal of the project, according to a report released by the organization, was to “improve fishability and broaden the size structure for wild brown and brook trout.” The project cost a total of $115,199, which came from both the WDNR and from funds that TU solicited from outside companies such as Patagonia.

Tom Schnadt, chapter president of Kiap-TU-Wish, made the point that projects like Red Cabin aim to reduce erosion caused by human influences like crop planting and cattle over-grazing.

“Really what we’re trying to do is bring stability back into the system,” Schnadt said. “We have no illusions that it’s what it was like 100 years ago.”

Red Cabin involved efforts to reduce the steep gradient of banks so that the water would hit it with less force and sweep away less sediment. The project also armored the banks of the river with rocks and plant cover against erosion and narrowed the stream to make it faster.

Whether any of this is a good or bad thing is more of a philosophical than scientific question, said Gathman, the UWRF biologist.

“You’re asking me for a value judgement. I’m a scientist, and I try to figure out what is, not what should be,” Gathman said. “It’s up to any given community of stakeholders to decide what they think should be.”

Residents and students at River Falls who have strong opinions on how the Kinni River should be handled have a variety of options to state their piece. Kiap-TU-Wish has a “Make a Connection” comment section under the “Contact Us” page on their website. The city of River Falls is also midway through the Kinni Corridor Project, which aims to renovate the section of river that flows through the downtown area of town. Questions and comments can be directed to Project Manager Buddy Lucero, and a calendar of upcoming meetings can be found at