APPLEGATE — Orange-clad offenders working off their debts to society also are paying dividends in the Applegate River drainage, where they are helping make streams better for wild salmon and steelhead as well as the anglers who stalk them.

APPLEGATE — Orange-clad offenders working off their debts to society also are paying dividends in the Applegate River drainage, where they are helping make streams better for wild salmon and steelhead as well as the anglers who stalk them.

Community justice crews are muscling their way through miles of nonnative Himalayan blackberries that have choked the banks of the Applegate and key spawning tributaries on U.S. Forest Service land in south-western Jackson County.

The thorny thickets alter riparian areas and over time can strangle the life out of the Applegate, not to mention frustrate anglers targeting winter steelhead on this stream notorious for poor fishing access.

In many places, the blackberries have overtaken the riverside understory, allowing no new trees to sprout and replace the mature Ponderosa pine and cottonwoods soaring over the stream.

"Streams really need that multistory canopy and we're losing that to blackberries," says Ian Reid, a fish biologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest who is overseeing the project.

"And, obviously, they're a nuisance," Reid says as he peers through a 20-foot-deep riverside thicket. "If you wanted to fish here, you'd have a dickens of a time trying to get through there, and you'd probably tear your $200 waders to shreds."

Eschewing more expensive chemical treatment in these sensitive aquatic zones, Reid has turned to community justice crews for the hardest part of the $30,000 project.

The blackberries must be pulled and their root-balls dug up and stacked for burning — the only way to keep the blackberries from re-establishing quickly.

"The community justice crews are doing the really heavy manual labor here," Reid says. "Some of this work is people with their heads down and butts up pulling blackberries.

"They're definitely the best bang for our buck," Reid says.

For the crews comprising Jackson County Jail inmates, however, the project is less about fixing the fish world and more about improving their world.

"Do I like it? I guess I kind of got to," says Aaron, a 20-year-old Medford man who community justice officials said could not disclose his last name. "It's all right. It makes time pass by."

Aaron says he found his way to the Applegate via jail after violating his probation on a misdemeanor assault conviction by using marijuana.

"I smoked a bowl and told my (probation officer), and he gave me 10 days," he says.

Sure he'll suffer from poison oak by nightfall and his arms thrashed by thorns, Aaron says he didn't know what the purpose of the berry-pulling was and that it didn't really matter.

"We were told to dig out the blackberries, make a pile and move on," he says. "Better than shackles."

Blackberries have been shackling streams across the West for more than a century after they were first brought to North America from Europe as a crop. They have since overrun riparian areas throughout the Pacific Northwest.

They form such a tight vice on the riparian floor that no new native cottonwoods or pines can take hold.

"When those older trees die, it's going to be a monoculture of blackberries," Reid says. "There's nothing that can penetrate them."

The crews pull the blackberries and Forest Service fire crews burn them.

The Forest Service plans to enlist volunteers from local angling clubs to plant native trees and shrubs to create the opportunity for a multi-tiered canopy ideal for the winter steelhead, fall chinook and threatened wild coho salmon that spawn and rear in the Applegate and its tributaries.

Opening up the banks also allows winter steelhead anglers some access along the Applegate, which flows primarily through private land.

"It's certainly a lot cheaper and easier to take care of what we have than try to acquire new access," Reid says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.