Prairie Creek Floodplain Restoration


Watch CalTrout's video on our Prairie Creek Restoration Project.


A Story of Ecological and Cultural Hope

Prairie Creek, Humboldt County, CA





By Mary Burke, CalTrout North Coast Program Coordinator



Two waterways meet near the spot where I stand. 

This is the confluence point of two waterways now known as Prairie Creek and Redwood Creek, both their names being descriptors of the environment surrounding them. The diagram below shows the watersheds for both Redwood Creek and Prairie Creek, courtesy of Save the Redwoods League.


Background Photo: Mike Wier




Foremost, this is the ancestral and unceded homelands of the Yurok Tribe.

This area held long-standing village sites where communities fished and hunted, raised their families, and lived well. The site is resilient: since Euro-American settlement, it has been ranched, logged, and developed into a mill site. It is an important place to many species of fish including Chinook and coho salmon, steelhead, coastal cutthroat trout, and other ecologically and culturally important species such as eulachon and lamprey. A place steeped in historical and ecological meaning, it is now the site of the Prairie Creek Floodplain Restoration Project, and part of an ambitious collaboration to revitalize the site through a habitat restoration and public access initiative 

This is a story of ecological and cultural hope. This is a story about reconnecting a creek to its floodplain through collaborative effort, supporting the Yurok Tribe to access a piece of their ancestral territory, and about connecting you – the public – to a future southern gateway of Redwood National and State Parks.  


History of the Prairie Creek Site 

The property was purchased by Save the Redwoods League in 2013. The League immediately cast a wide net to pull in agency and Yurok Tribe representatives, CalTrout, and a team of local contractors to develop a restoration plan.  Together we have done just that.  

Why does this site need to be restored? Let’s focus in on the ecological status of the site: 






A Watershed Perspective

To put the site in its larger ecological context, let’s paint a wider picture of the Redwood Creek watershed: 

Despite some lingering harmful impacts of legacy timber operations, the upper reaches of the Prairie Creek sub-watershed contain some of the best salmonid habitat on the West Coast. Ancient old-growth redwood forests comprise much of the drainage area and a remarkable 98% of the watershed is on public lands. The conditions upstream are reflected in fish productivity – over 80% of the salmonid population comes from the Prairie Creek tributary of Redwood Creek. 

Between this prime area and the ocean, however, habitat conditions for salmonids in mainstem Redwood Creek are extremely poor and the estuary is virtually absent. Nearly treeless flood control levees confine the creek in an unnatural, orderly channel all the way to within 800 feet of the ocean surf zone which leaves little protective and productive habitat for juvenile salmon and steelhead.  







The project site marks the first place upstream of those levees where complex, low-gradient, cool water habitat - vital rearing habitat - can be provided. The importance of this location cannot be overstated: every fish spawned in Prairie Creek will move downstream through the site and have a chance to benefit from the restored habitat. 

This lower section of Prairie Creek also is accessible to fish that are hatched in Redwood Creek, which has higher water temperatures and more water quality impairments. This means that the project site is in the unique position of being able to improve salmonid habitat for the entire 282-square-mile Redwood Creek watershed. The restored off-channel habitats will be the last opportunity for juvenile salmonids to feed and grow before the creek enters the leveed channel of lower Redwood Creek. 






The Yurok Tribe brings invaluable technical expertise and cultural knowledge and has been a part of the Project from its beginning. The Project has greatly benefited from the support of Tribal Council with critical involvement from the Cultural and Fisheries Departments. In the Fall of 2021, the Project invited the Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation, an all-Yurok crew, and the Yurok Tribe Fisheries Department staff to implement the first year of construction. Now completed, this successful restoration season lays a strong foundation for the Project’s future. Yurok Tribal involvement is central to a successful outcome as it is essential for California Tribal Nations and their dynamic and living cultures to be engaged in the future of their homelands.   


Photo: First day of construction, Yurok Tribe Construction Crew and other project staff.









An Opportunity for Education 

The collection of partners and funders on this project recognize the need for restoration, access, and education to go hand-in-hand for an integrated conservation approach. The property owner, Save the Redwoods League, is leading the initiative to create a new point of public access as a gateway to the adjacent landscape, protected and managed under Redwood National and State Parks.  

Once the 20-acres of old mill site asphalt are removed, soil excavated from the floodplain will be used to landscape a welcoming trail gateway with educational signage that gives the opportunity to view the restored Prairie Creek and hike into the old growth redwoods. A core part of this vision includes the Yurok Tribe creating a village site to illustrate their culture. 







Prairie Creek Restoration Project Team on-site. Credit: Mike Wier.






This first season of construction has provided us with many lessons that will carry forward into the next four years of the project.

We are filled with hope at the opportunities for ecological and cultural revitalization that live within this project. 


CalTrout Partners & Funders on Prairie Creek

Save the Redwoods League, California State Coastal Conservancy, NOAA, Wildlife Conservation Board, USFWS Coastal Program, Yurok Tribe, Redwood National and State Parks, CDFW, Northern Hydrology & Engineering, McBain & Associates, GHD, SHN, Lang, Railsback & Associates, Redwood Sciences Laboratory, Redwood Coast Action Agency.



About the Author:

Mary is the North Coast project manager for projects on the Eel River, Mad River and Prairie Creek. In addition, Mary coordinates the CalTrout-organized Eel River Forum, a group formed to promote salmonid and ecosystem recovery of the Eel River. Ms. Burke has a M.S. degree from Humboldt State University where she gained experience and interest in freshwater and tidal wetland function for water quality and habitat benefits.

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