TRAIL — Looking at the Elk Creek channel immediately upstream of where a partial Elk Creek Dam once existed makes it hard for Chad Stuart to imagine the land was scheduled to be 100 feet underwater.
Scraped clean during the early 1980s, the creek rumbled through this mothballed construction site until 2009, when it was painstakingly restored with earthen berms, native plant seedlings, and carefully placed logs and stumps to create complex salmon habitat.
Elk Creek Dam was authorized as part of the Rogue River Basin's trio of dams meant to control winter floods and release stored water in the summer to enhance fish habitat. Lost Creek and Applegate are the other two. Here's a brief history:
1986: Construction begins.
1987: Court injunction over fishery and water-quality concerns halts construction.
1988: Work on the dam ends Jan. 5.
1989: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes finishing the dam but with a hole in its base so Elk Creek could flow through it and fish could swim past it under most conditions. The dam still could be used to curb flooding during high-water events.
1992: The Corps begins trapping and hauling fish around the dam.
1996: After continued resistance from environmental groups, the Corps decides not to pursue the environmental studies needed to get a court injunction lifted.
2006: The Corps plans to notch the dam before a permit to trap and haul threatened coho expires that year.
2007: The Corps has spent $113.9 million on the project as of Sept. 30. If the dam had been finished as planned in the late 1980s, the total bill would have come to $121 million.
2008: Blasting crews detonate their first load of dynamite under a $7.9 million contract to notch the dam on July 15. The final blast is detonated Aug. 17.
2009: A $2 million restoration effort rebuilds the stream channel and adds 45,000 plants for bank stabilization and a future streamside riparian zone.
2010: The Corps embarks on a plan for managing its 2,600 acres of what was to have been the reservoir and banks. Poor bridge facilities trigger a year-round vehicle ban.
2013: Work scheduled to begin on new parking facilities and trail facets for hiking and biking access.
Now this reclaimed stretch of what would have been the bottom of Elk Creek Lake could sport some of the better complex habitat for wild salmon and steelhead in this important Upper Rogue River Basin tributary system.
"You can see the changes in this creek," says Stuart, the natural resources manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Rogue Basin Project. "The water quality is amazing. Everything looks so much more healthy in just this past half-decade.
"We'd love to have people come down here and see the restoration area," he says.
The Corps now is trotting out a welcome mat of sorts for the public to gain better access to the 2,600 acres in the Elk Creek basin while protecting the unique natural features of the lands and waters.
Construction crews are scheduled this week to begin the first of two phases of work that will define walk-in, bike-in and occasionally horseback ride-in access to the site.
The Corps plans to use the old Jackson County road to anchor about 6.1 miles of paved or gravel trails linked by two soon-to-be-created parking areas with toilets.
The dilapidated bridge over West Branch Creek will be replaced with a footbridge, and a similar bridge will span nearby Middle Creek.
Next year, plans call for replacing a second bridge over West Branch Creek with a footbridge, building a new bridge over Alco Creek that can support vehicles for emergency and administrative access.
Lastly, a "pie in the sky" plan, if funding comes through, would be to remove the immense gravel mountains once destined to go into the dam's concrete and restore those areas to pre-construction quality, Stuart says.
Motorized vehicle traffic will remain banned there as it has been since 2009, and the creek will remain off-limits to fishing as are most Rogue spawning tributaries. It remains open to hunting.
The improvements mirror what the general public and other governmental agencies said they wanted out of these lands when the Corps two years ago began crafting a management plan for the property that once held ranches and homesteads.
The two primary issues raised by the public were access and stewardship and the improvements will reflect that, Stuart says.
"It was a unique opportunity to build something from the ground up, to get the best benefit out of these lands for the most people," he says.
This summer's work, which is scheduled to be completed in August, will see the building of the Yellow Rock parking lot on the downstream end of the road and the Homesteader's Trailhead lot at the upstream end.
The upstream lot will be close to the so-called Seven Mile Bend — a popular summer swimming hole but technically not an authorized swimming beach.
The Corps will restrict access to the gravel piles until they are removed for safety purposes, Stuart says. The remaining concrete left over after the dam's notching also will be off-limits as a safety hazard, he says.
The first phase will cost about $327,000, while the second year is estimated preliminarily to cost about $700,000 and has yet to be funded, Stuart says.
The Corps purchased the private land in 1971 to become the site of Elk Creek Lake, one of three Rogue Basin reservoirs envisioned by the agency for flood-control and fisheries management here.
Lost Creek and Applegate dams were completed, but Elk Creek Dam's construction was halted in 1988 over environmental lawsuits.
The Corps could not legally complete the half-built dam because it couldn't create mitigation to offset the warmer waters that would flow out of the reservoir. So it was notched in 2008 to allow fish passage.
Most of the land has remained open to the public, except areas immediately upstream and downstream of the dam's remnants. Access has been via various gated roads. Originally, vehicles were banned Nov. 15 through April 30 as part of a seasonal road closure designed to improve winter range for black-tailed deer.
A 2009 survey found the three older bridges were unsafe for vehicle travel, so the Corps closed vehicle access year-round in 2010.
Shortly after the dam's notching, the Corps spent about $2 million to turn the creek channel upstream of the dam from a moonscape to thriving complex habitat for wild coho salmon and winter steelhead that spawn and rear in the Rogue sub-basin.
Over time, the artificial structures have taken hold while stabilizing the banks and creating a wild menagerie that's not only a source of pride for the Corps but also will be the focal point of walking tours should visitors ask for them, Stuart says.
"It's, basically, taken on a life of its own," Stuart says. "It changes every season, creating its own structure."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.