Wenatchee Naturalist, Mara Bohman, shares her article, Salmon Recovery in North Central Washington, originally published in the Wenatchee World as an April 2017 four-part series on local salmon recovery efforts. Mara Bohman is a freelance writer, watercolor artist and former elementary teacher living in Leavenworth. She blogs and shares her passion for the Columbia River at The Columbia River Rolls On: Stories and attitudes: past, present and into the future about the mighty Columbia River. Mara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-888- 3944.
Part 1: What’s Going On?
“If you use your fish wisely, you can have them forever.” Miller Freeman, Editor, “Pacific Fisherman”, 1952
Salmon have been on this planet for more than 6 million years. About 13,000 miles of streams and rivers in the Columbia Basin were home to roughly 16 million salmon and steelhead in 1860. Today, we are lucky to see 2 million return to to spawn. An army of dedicated people is working hard to help recover depleted salmon runs in our area.
In a few weeks, the Wenatchee community will welcome more than 1,000 visitors from all over the greater Northwest to the sixth biennial Washington State Salmon Recovery Conference, held in Eastern Washington (April 25-27, 2017, for the first time. So what the heck is going on in the world of salmon recovery, in language that an ordinary citizen such as myself can understand? As it turns out, quite a lot.
In fact, a dizzying alphabet soup of organizations is working hard toward this common goal of recovering depleted salmon runs in Washington state. The goal is straightforward, but the means to achieve it are anything but. Federal, state and local entities, tribes, non-profits and citizens all play different, but equally important roles in this effort. More than 30 organizations are involved in some way with funding, policy, management and/or on-the- ground project implementation in North Central Washington alone.
The early 1990s ushered in a wake-up call to the extreme devastation of a number of salmon and native cold water fish runs in the Pacific Northwest. Habitat destruction, overfishing and dams were just some of the factors that contributed to the listing of 14 different runs as threatened or endangered on the Endangered Species List. The cavalry arrived with the creation of the Salmon Recovery Act. Seven regional recovery boards were created across Washington state. The region for our local group — the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board (UCSRB) — encompasses 9,500 square miles from Pasco all the way to the Canadian border, including major watersheds such as the Wenatchee, Okanogan, Methow and Entiat. Steelhead, Upper Columbia Spring Chinook and Bull Trout are the three listed species for our area. Many organizations are working on salmon recovery efforts, but the main player is you …and me.
The genius in this process to recovering salmon in Washington state, called the “Washington Way,” is unique to our state in that it provides for a grassroots, bottom-up approach that’s all voluntary. “In our region, then Chelan County Commissioner Esther Stefaniw, understood the importance of having a local voice and community buy-in in the face of these federal listings. All of the entities needed to work together if we were to have success,” Joy Juleson from the UCSRB explained. The UCSRB coordinated the development of a salmon recovery plan for the region. They continue to coordinate regional recovery efforts as well as administer a funding process for many salmon recovery projects in our area.
These projects aren’t just fluffy, fish-hugging affairs. Efforts such as habitat enhancement or removing migration barriers require backhoe drivers, loggers, sand and gravel companies, and engineers, just to name a few. Salmon recovery is a significant economic driver in North Central Washington. Since 1999, 441 projects have been completed, creating 1,890 jobs and $267 million in economic activity. This business of salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest benefits all aspects of our community, not to mention these great fish who have called these waters home for millions of years.
Part 2: Salmon grow on trees
Fish grow on trees, or so they say, but trees also grow on fish. No kidding— they literally do! Salmon need cool, clear streams with tree and vegetation-studded shorelines that create a healthy habitat in which to live and reproduce. Born in these streams, salmon migrate hundreds of miles out to sea to live for several years, gathering rich, ocean nutrients. The salmon then swim back up the river to spawn and die like some kind of “nutrient conveyor belt.” Who else do you know that can do that? Their decaying, nutrient-rich bodies feed wildlife and nourish the soil for plants to grow. In fact, trees located along salmon-bearing streams grow three times faster than those along non-salmon- bearing streams!
It’s a win-win situation and it didn’t take long for groups working on salmon recovery to realize the importance of bringing forest health into the picture. The Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board (UCSRB) in Wenatchee, whose efforts to facilitate and coordinate salmon recovery in North Central Washington are so successful, was brought on board to extend those efforts to forest health. The North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative was created in 2013. Representatives from federal and state agencies, conservation groups and the timber industry collaborate to accelerate forest health projects in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. These four million acres of U.S. Forest Service-managed lands, which make up 70 percent of the land in Chelan and Okanogan counties, include essential habitat for salmon and steelhead listed as endangered or threatened.
According to UCSRB executive director Melody Kreimes, applying the locally led, collaborative approach that is working so well in the world of salmon recovery to forest health makes sense. “The Forest Health Collaborative is building support and leveraging funds to accelerate ecological restoration that also provide social and economic benefits to the region.”
We’ve all witnessed the catastrophic wildfires in our area in recent years. And that will continue into the future. While wildfires can contribute to healthy forests, catastrophic ones do not. When extensive portions of a forest experience high-severity fire, there are not enough trees left behind to provide seeds to regenerate new forests. In the short-term, salmon suffer too when their streams are filled with silt from forest fire-ravaged hillsides, or the surrounding trees that provide shade for spawning salmon have been burned up.
For this reason, the Collaborative supports “Era of Megafires,” a multimedia presentation about the importance of achieving fire resiliency in our forests and communities. Created by North 40 Productions of Wenatchee, “Era of Megafires” has been bringing its powerful message to many communities in the region.
The Forest Health Collaborative is helping with several projects, such as the Mission Project in the Methow Valley Ranger District. Thinning and prescribed burning of 3,251 acres will help to restore the forest to its natural healthy state. And like salmon recovery efforts, these projects are strong economic drivers for communities. Timber sales from these efforts can also help to fund additional forest health projects. The role of forest health in salmon recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest is just one of many topics that will be discussed at the upcoming Washington State Salmon Recovery Conference, April 25-27 at the Wenatchee Convention Center.
Part 3: Salmon Recovery in North Central Washington
Local experts valiantly tried to educate me about the complex world of salmon recovery, and the puzzle pieces began to fall into place. But all of the coordination and collaboration in that world would be for naught without the project sponsors, the organizations that are actually doing the work on the ground. “We have amazing partners doing incredible work. They’re making it happen,” explained Melody Kreimes, executive director of the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board, the backbone organization for salmon recovery in the region. These are the folks who are mucking about; the backhoe drivers, the loggers, the fisheries biologists who are all making North Central Washington a better place for salmon and people.
One such group right here in Wenatchee is the Cascade Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group (CCFEG). “We are one of several ‘boots on the ground’ organizations in the world of salmon recovery,” explains executive director Jason Lundgren. “While we are all working for recovery of salmon and other cold water fishes, each group has their own niche.” CCFEG primarily does habitat restoration, such as their project on the White River, where they placed wood structures to create a better environment for juvenile salmon. The Silver Side Channel restoration just south of Twisp was another project successful at creating a healthy habitat for juvenile fish. Both of these were made possible with the support from a number of entities including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, Colville Confederated Tribes and Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
In addition to habitat restoration, CCFEG has an educational piece, such as the hands-on learning they bring into every third grade classroom in the Wenatchee School District. Students raise juvenile Chinook salmon while learning about the salmon life cycle and habitat conservation. The Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation (MSRF) partners with other groups to work on a number of different projects in the Methow and Okanogan watersheds.
“Some of the fun projects we’re doing right now are bringing community groups together that don’t normally work together,” explains executive director Chris Johnson. Partnering with the Colville Tribes, they built an interpretive trail along the Methow River where they had removed 1,200 feet of levee, opening up habitat for salmon. “Far from putting up barbed wire, we want to encourage public engagement or connections with the land.”
The Beaver Project is another really cool partnership project. Restoring beaver populations helps with salmon recovery as the beaver dams create a wetland “sponge” that stores water to be slowly released during the drier months when salmon might be spawning. The additional water can also benefit irrigators and other water users.
In addition to the above mentioned groups, other project sponsors working in the Upper Columbia River watershed include the Yakama Nation, Trout Unlimited-Washington Water Project, Cascadia and Okanogan conservation districts, Chelan County and Methow Conservancy. Who pays for all of these amazing salmon recovery projects? In addition to the entities already mentioned, some other funders include Bonneville Power Administration, Chelan, Douglas and Grant county PUDs, Icicle Fund and the Community Foundation of NCW, just to name a few.
Many of these “boots on the ground” organizations will be coming together for the Washington State Salmon Recovery Conference starting Tuesday at the Wenatchee Convention Center.
Part 4: Why all the fuss?
You could say that a salmon is not a one-trick pony. Their complicated lives require complicated solutions. If we allow these salmon to die out, what does that say about us as the great human species? Salmon are food. They nourish our people, our rivers and our forests. They provide recreation and jobs. They are our heritage here in the Northwest. Think about it. Do we want to become like the East Coast where Atlantic salmon, once found in every major river north of the Hudson, now means farmed salmon picked up at the local Costco? More than 99 percent of all native Atlantic salmon have disappeared from the wild. Or do we in the Pacific Northwest want to become like Europe, where they had laws protecting salmon 800 years ago?
Those of us who live in North Central Washington and the Pacific Northwest are lucky. We still have a chance to prove that we have the commitment to protect that which makes us great. I have learned much since diving into the world of salmon recovery in the region. Every expert I talked to opened my eyes and shattered my preconceived notions that it was a linear world. Nope; it’s more like a web, or maybe like one of the fishing scaffolds I see on the Icicle River.
“It’s all about the connections,” describes Melody Kreimes from the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board. “It’s the connections between the project sponsors, the landowners and the communities, between the uplands, the rivers and the ocean.” The degree of partnering that goes on amongst the many groups involved in the world of salmon recovery in North Central Washington is remarkable, to say the least. However, as described by Chris Johnson of the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, “Collaboration is not always the easy way to go, but it’s leading to better projects on the ground.” And salmon recovery is definitely not for the fainthearted, nor for those with short attention spans. We are in it for the long haul. Our area is now 10 years into a 30- to 50-year salmon recovery plan for the region. In terms of a salmon’s life cycle, that represents only two to three generations of fish returning. While we are seeing some success, there is still much work to be done.
And so it makes little sense that the recent White House budget proposal would eliminate a major federal funding source for salmon recovery, the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. This would devastate salmon recovery efforts just when they’re starting to see measurable progress. The complex life cycle of salmon, coupled with a changing climate and environmental pressure from an ever-growing population, presents challenges for sure. We need patience and unwavering commitment to achieve recovery of our threatened and endangered salmon.
So I tip my hat to all of those groups with the long tongue twisting names; the federal, state and local organizations, the tribes and the PUDs, the private non-profits and individual community members. This series of articles has been simply a snapshot. I will continue to research and write about the amazing work being done in the world of salmon recovery in NCW. Great ideas in the world of salmon recovery will come together at the Washington State Salmon Recovery Conference. The three-day conference begins Tuesday at the Wenatchee Convention Center.