Camp Polk inspires a life-long love of science

Dec 08, 2015
Scientist Brandon Overstreet says his passion for science all started with a visit to the Land Trust's Camp Polk Meadow Preserve.

Dedicated Sisters Nugget readers may have read the November article about local scientist Brandon Overstreet. Brandon, and his work on glaciers in Greenland, was featured in a front page article in the New York Times on October 28th. The Nugget caught the local connection and interviewed Brandon about his fascinating work and his inspiration and passion for studying rivers.

It turns out that passion came, in part, from a visit to the Land Trust’s Camp Polk Meadow Preserve. Brandon was a student at Sisters High School in 2001 in the Interdisciplinary Environmental Expedition program when he had the opportunity to take a field trip to Camp Polk Meadow to study Whychus Creek. It was that visit that sparked Brandon’s interest (and subsequent degrees) in fluvial geomorphology.

The Land Trust recently invited Brandon out to walk the restored Whychus Creek at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve and he jumped at the opportunity. After the tour, he sent us comments  to a few follow-up questions:

Land Trust: When did you first visit Camp Polk?

Brandon Overstreet: I first visited Camp Polk in 2001 as a junior at Sisters High School for a class field trip. At that time the creek was bordered by a narrow strip of alders and cottonwood trees which transitioned abruptly to sagebrush field. I remember battling through chest high sagebrush as we crossed the meadow. The creek was shallow and straight with very little character and I recall being surprised to learn that the channel actually did support some fish. I was even more surprised to learn that this small creek once supported a thriving population of salmon and steelhead.

It was really eye opening for me to learn that many of the problems with the creek (straight, over-simplified channel disconnected from the historic floodplain) could be attributed to a drastic reconfiguration of the channel by the US Army Corps of Engineers to mitigate flooding in the 1960’s. This was one of my first realizations of the delicate balance that fluvial systems operate in and how easily that balance can be disrupted. 

Land Trust: Were you aware of the Whychus Creek restoration completed in 2012?

Brandon Overstreet: I have closely monitored the restoration progress from afar via the Land Trust and Watershed Council websites while working towards a graduate degree in fluvial geomorphology at the University of Wyoming. I even gave a short presentation about the project as part of a river restoration course a few years ago. It has been really cool for me to monitor the progress as I learn more about geomorphology and river restoration.

Land Trust: What are your thoughts on visiting Camp Polk again?

Brandon Overstreet: I was blown away by how much of the meadow was responding to the restoration. That sagebrush covered field that I struggled to walk across in 2001 is now a thriving floodplain which is now an ecological hub for the entire area. One of the most encouraging things that I saw was how much freedom the stream had to reestablish a path across the meadow. Many of the restoration sites that I have worked on have been engineered to minimize channel change in part to protect adjacent property and infrastructure. The beautiful thing about the Camp Polk project is that the stream has the whole valley to work with and it is free to wiggle back and forth without damaging property and infrastructure. I saw a number of areas of active erosion and bar building which as a geomorphologist I get really excited about. These natural river processes makes for a healthy stream system and create fantastic spawning and rearing habitat for those salmon and steelhead when they decide to show up again.

Restoration projects tend to do a great job of illustrating the complexity of river systems. While we can do our best to base restoration design on the best background research and latest scientific principles, in my experience there are always surprises and unexpected responses. I love learning about these responses because it shows that there is still a mysterious element of rivers that is still intact. I feel like the restoration partners at Camp Polk have done a great job of building a management framework that embraces the unexpected stream behavior and give the river the latitude to find its own dynamic equilibrium. While I am sure this causes a few gray hairs at times, I think in the long run it will lead to a self-sustaining system at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve.
Brandon Overstreet is currently pursuing a PhD in Hydrology through the Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming.  He lives in Tumalo with his family.