By Katy Pfannenstein U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
“A lot of the work we do here at this office is done behind the scenes, so you can’t work here looking to get any credit.”
— Robes Parrish, fish biologist
This statement from Robes is both an accurate reflection of our conservation careers and an insight into his humility. While looking for the limelight isn’t his thing, after 14 years, credit is definitely due as he heads off to Alaska for a new adventure.
Robes is well known for his strong opinions, paired with his passion and drive for conservation, climate science and electric vehicles. When I joined the Habitat Restoration Program at the Mid-Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office three years ago, I asked Robes why he didn’t work for a consulting firm, with the skillset he has, as he could make so much more money somewhere else.
“It’s not about the money, it’s about the work we do,” Robes told me. “I get to pick the projects I want to work on and know that my efforts go toward boots-on-the-ground conservation and ultimately lead to good things for the world.”
He began doing “good things” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2005. He was stationed in Klamath Falls, Oregon, as biologist in the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, which provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners to improve fish and wildlife habitat on their property. Two years later, the adventure-seeking Robes accepted another Service job as a fish biologist at the Mid-Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Leavenworth.
It was here, working on habitat restoration in the Methow Valley, that I had the honor of working with and learning from Robes. In addition to continuing his dedicated work on habitat, Robes also expanded his skillset through work with the National Fish Passage Program. I had the privilege of observing his expertise grow over time as he continued to design and implement large-scale restoration projects.
By day, Robes was designing and constructing engineered log jams and culvert replacements, constructing beaver dam analogs, and creating side channels. In addition to this already full work load, he also pursued the necessary university class work to earn his certification as a Professional Hydrologist from the American Institute of Hydrology.
Many Methow projects
Robes’ work often expanded beyond the Methow Valley and his passion for partnership led him to projects in the Okanogan, Entiat and Wenatchee watersheds, as well as the Yakima Basin. Within the Methow, he partnered with the Methow Conservancy, Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, Cascade Fisheries, Trout Unlimited, Yakama Nation, Watershed Resource Solutions and the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. He worked on restoration projects on the mainstem Methow, Twisp River, Beaver Creek, and Frazer, Wolf, Libby and Goat creeks, just to name a few. As extensive as his impact has been on large-scale watersheds, his legacy is best seen in the small, somewhat inconspicuous Hancock Springs.
Hancock Springs is on a former dairy ranch, where the milk produced was kept naturally refrigerated by the clear, cold water available year-round. Unfortunately, cows were not excluded from the creek, and they ate the streamside vegetation and damaged the soils, widening the creek to more than 100 feet in places. This changed the site from one that provided pristine fish habitat to a warmer, shallow, stagnant, pond-like stream.
In 2011, Yakama Nation partnered with the Service to restore the upper quarter-mile of the stream from the source. Robes collected mountains of data, completed the engineering design, applied for most of the permits, wrote the contracting documents, and personally labored for six weeks to implement the restoration effort. At the time he wrote, “wallowing in waist deep mud carrying 100 lb rolls of wetland sod PLUS trying to manage the workflow for 17 people. Seldom do I get to completely bust my (butt) for 13 hours straight, feel so utterly thrashed and, at the end of the day, see that I’ve physically made the world a better place.”
Robes continued his labor of love by teaming up with Yakama Nation on an effectiveness monitoring study for the upper reach at Hancock Springs and the yet-unrestored lower reach. The upper reach was immediately used by steelhead and Chinook salmon at unexpectedly high densities and was frequented by foraging bull trout. In 2019, just as in 2011, the restoration effort of the lower quarter mile was designed and led by Robes.
Working tirelessly but always with the help of partners, Robes assisted or led many other restoration efforts, including at the Silver Side Channel (Methow); Goat Creek (Methow), Entiat National Fish Hatchery, Dillwater (Entiat), and White River (Wenatchee) engineered log jams. He managed helicopter wood treatments in Box Canyon Creek (Yakima) and Swauk Creek (Yakima); and for the past five years, installed beaver dam analogs in Myers Creek (Okanogan).
Making it worthwhile
He summed up his work well in this statement: “For much of the year I slug it out in the office doing analysis, design, permitting, and contracting. But for a brief time in the fall, I’m finally able to get to work in the river doing good things for fish and people. When fish immediately utilize the new habitat you’ve just created, it all seems worthwhile.”
We here at the Mid-Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office are certainly glad Robes has spent the past 14 years slugging it out with us, and I personally feel privileged to have learned from this dedicated conservationist. His time has come to an end here, as he has accepted a position with the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska as a Watershed Program Manager. While Alaska has only two national forests, they are the two largest in the country.
The next chapter of his career begins with yet another grand adventure, and his geographic area of influence will expand once again. Robes will be leaving a legacy behind here in Washington, one that will be felt by generations of people and wildlife. Here is a huge “thank you” to Robes for all the work he’s done in the past 14 years at the Mid-Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, but even more so for sticking with a career in public service that makes a lasting difference.
Katy Pfannenstein is a fish biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This article originally appeared in the Wenatchee World and is reprinted with permission.