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Voyage of the Beaver

Nature’s engineers — and environmental heroes — make a comeback in western U.S.

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"Beaver are where they should be, doing what they should be doing," Tippie says. "Over time, I realized we should learn to live with the beaver where they are. I'd like to relocate some of the people."

Schillie, the Forest Service analyst based in Denver, used to work in the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., focusing on carbon and climate change policy, "thinking about how do we adapt to the projected impacts, and thinking of low-tech solutions." When he moved West last year, it hit him: "Beaver habitat."

In the last decade, catastrophic wildfires, driven by climate change, have incinerated some Rocky Mountain watersheds so intensely that the soil now actually repels water. In addition to losing vegetation, the ground is "becoming hydrophobic -- less permeable to water," Schillie says. This has caused erosion and severe washoff of soils into drinking-water reservoirs.

In the watershed hit by the 2002 Hayman Fire in central Colorado, Denver water utilities have "built a couple of fairly large rock dams just above the reservoirs that stop sediment and allow water to pass through. Then they come in behind the dam and dredge the sediment and haul it away," Schillie says. The dredging must be done frequently, he adds. "I think you can go higher up the slope and have more effect by creating beaver dams. You reduce velocity and at the same time capture sediment." So Schillie has just submitted a proposal to headquarters for a demonstration project. "We see a lot of value" in beaver restoration, he says.

Even here at Liberty Lake, there are benefits and conflicts. Beaver have returned in recent years. But when their dams flooded some popular hiking trails, residents took matters into their own hands, poaching out the animals and using rakes to hack the dams apart. BiJay Adams, lake protection manager for the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, convinced the beaver's opponents to back off, because the animals were restoring -- for free -- a water-filtering marsh, work that would have cost the district $500,000. The trails could easily be relocated, he assured them.

It's a tougher sell a few miles away, at Sacheen Lake, where beaver have created what one state wetlands regulator calls "beaver heaven" at the lake's outlet. Frustrated residents are threatening to dynamite the dams because the slower release of water is raising the lake level, threatening homes and septic systems, and high-water wave action is eroding the shore.

The weather fits the conference's primordial longings: a sky woolly gray and rumpled, so saturated with moisture that it falls all day as rain or hail and even snow, with flashes of lightning and thunder.