If you were to stand on a distant ridge overlooking the Sucker Creek drainage, the work site would resemble a big sandbox filled with yellow construction toys.

If you were to stand on a distant ridge overlooking the Sucker Creek drainage, the work site would resemble a big sandbox filled with yellow construction toys.

"They look like a bunch of Tonka toys in the sandbox when we were growing up," said Kevin O'Brien of the Illinois Valley Soil and Water Conservation District.

"But an extreme amount of design work has gone into this," he added. "Not everybody gets to build rivers and move them around. We are doing it with a lot of permits, a lot of design and a lot of technical review."

Indeed, there is nothing playful about the two excavators, bulldozer and loader growling and grumbling as they move earth to restore a valuable fishery in the largest tributary of the Illinois River.

The three-year project is under way about a dozen miles east of Cave Junction.

The fishery rehabilitation project is digging away at a half-mile of stream straightened out by 150 years of mining.

The goal is to turn it back into a meandering creek that is ideal for young coho salmon and other native fish that thrive in cold, clear water. Coho is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"Basically, we are trying to restore the natural meander pattern in the stream," said Ian Reid, a fish biologist with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

"What I envision when we are done is an area where fish survival is high," he added. "Coho is the primary species we are interested in but there are several other species — steelhead, Chinook salmon, Pacific lamprey — that will also benefit from this."

Much of this year's work will be concluded by the end of next week, said project manager Liz Berger, the forest hydrologist.

"The whole main stem of Sucker Creek has been diverted into a side channel we have constructed," she said. "This allows us to work in a dry channel."

A pump is drawing water out of the channel being built and diverting it into a floodplain where it will seep underground back into the stream.

"Next year, we will be connecting the main stem of Sucker Creek across the stream, making a new meander into this forested section of Forest Service land," she said of the final year of the project, estimated to cost about $1 million.

That work will include implanting fir and cedar logs into the gravel to create riffles and spawning gravels for the fishery, she said.

"Part of this is to slow down the flow and improve fish habitat and water quality," she said. "Before we had a straight line channel through here. There were no large pools through here."

This year's efforts will restore the natural meander pattern to some 500 feet of the stream. In addition to the main stem channel work, the project will create a 400-foot side channel used for spawning and rearing by native fish. The side channel will connect to a rearing pond and back to the main channel to allow the rearing and movement of fish throughout the system, Reid said.

Miners began digging for gold along the stream shortly after the precious metal was discovered in the early 1850s in Southern Oregon, Reid said.

"The channel was straightened and confined by tailing piles," he said. "Straight channels are pretty high velocity and don't offer a lot of habitat for fish."

The section was selected because it has high potential for fish habitat improvement, Berger said.

"It also is a section that was listed for highest stream temperatures," she said. "The potential for improvement is great here."

Consider this: The water temperature routinely rose three degrees in the half-mile stretch before work began, she observed.

Mining continues in the area but the agency is working in partnership with miners who are working a private parcel immediately upstream from the project.

"They are allowing us to drive across their land and are working with us," Reid said, noting the mining firm, Carlon's Gravel Pit, is both mining for gold and selling aggregate as a by-product.

There is also a mining claim for a suction dredge operation in the area, he noted.

About $210,000 is being spent on the project this year, compared to about $500,000 last year, O'Brien said.

"By the time this whole thing is done, it will probably be in excess of a million-dollar project," he estimated.

However, that includes in-kind work contributed by the adjacent land owner and others, officials said.

"The impact of this project goes all the way down Sucker Creek," O'Brien said. "One thing it will do is lower the stream temperature. That will have a direct impact on the city of Cave Junction."

The only incorporated town in the Illinois Valley, Cave Junction draws its water from the Illinois River not far from where Sucker Creek pours into the river, he noted.

"Without all of these partners working together, this would not have been able to happen," O'Brien said, noting the project has also brought much needed money into the local economy.

Funding for this year's work was provided in part by Ecotrust, U.S. Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.