Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Habitat restoration efforts such as removal of the Elwha Dam, shown here in process onOctober 8, 2011, have helped bring back salmon spawning grounds. But development has eroded the work on other fronts.

Northwest Salmon, Part 3: Tribes Work to Restore Habitat

Richard Walker
September 04, 2013


It has been about a year since the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission report “State of Our Watersheds” was released in September 2012. In it, the commission outlined the ways that salmon habitat was being degraded even as restoration efforts continued. 

RELATED: Salmon Killers: Top 10 Threats to the King of Fish

As the report was being written, numerous Native nations were partners in more than $30 million worth of investment in salmon habitat restoration projects in 28 counties in Washington State. The $30 million was invested by the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, which works with tribal governments, counties, cities and towns, nonprofits and natural resource agencies to prioritize habitat restoration projects and funding. Past chairmen of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board include former U.S. EPA director William Ruckelshaus.

Thirty-five of those projects were led by Native nations, with sizable monetary investments by tribal governments; many including grants that required matching funds. Among the projects:

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe worked to restore connectivity between Abernathy Creek and its floodplain, and improve salmon habitat on a fork of the Lewis River. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe removed two six-foot culverts and 600 feet of road to open 37 acres of estuary habitat to summer chum and chinook salmon.

The Kalispel Tribe moved 2.6 miles of road away from a creek, replanted the creek banks, and removed seven culverts and other barriers to fish passage.

On the Elwha River, where two dams have been removed, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe installed 11 logjams to slow the river and create habitat for salmon, removed invasive weeds, moved logs and tree root wads from the shoreline to denuded sites, and planted 14,000 native plants and trees.

The Nooksack Indian Tribe installed more than 30 logjams in the north fork of the Nooksack River to protect forested islands in the main channel and increase the number and depth of pools for salmon spawning and rearing.

The Stillaguamish Tribe installed six logjams on the Stillaguamish River and bought 126 acres of floodplain forest on the river’s north fork.

The Yakama Nation and several partners replanted 30 acres of banks of Reecer Creek, installed logs and tree-root wads in the creek, pulled back a road to restore connectivity to the Klickitat River floodplain, and replaced a 40-foot culvert with a structure that will allow for unrestricted movement of fish in the Yakima River floodplain.

It doesn’t take much to undo or negatively impact years of restoration work. In Washington State, the city of Poulsbo, the Suquamish Tribe and community groups have been restoring cutthroat, chum, coho and steelhead habitat in the Liberty Bay/Dogfish Creek estuary since the 1990s. A four-foot culvert separating the creek and bay was replaced by a bridge, and the city acquired land on both sides of the creek for a nature preserve, expanding its development buffers from 40 feet to 250 feet.

Then in December a privately owned, century-old road culvert was washed out in a storm, suffocating chum and coho spawning beds downstream with a torrent of sediment. The city established new rules requiring a buffer of 250 feet between development and streams and wetlands. But along Dogfish Creek, development plans approved before the wider buffers were adopted can comply with older rules that allow buffers of 40 feet. And that’s just in Poulsbo.

Under the state’s Shoreline Management Act, each city and county with "shorelines of the state" must prepare and adopt a Shoreline Master Program that is based on state laws. But each program can be “tailored to the specific geographic, economic and environmental needs of the community,” according to the act. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

As explained by Scott Chitwood, natural resources director of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, local rules regulating waterfront development allow existing uses, although many of those uses contribute to environmental degradation.

“The regulatory process is allowing degradation,” Chitwood said. “On a lot of shoreline, there are private docks and armoring to prevent erosion. So there’s a conflict there [with habitat restoration goals].”

He added, “Local governments are updating their shoreline master plans, and there is some hope. Our interest is to build into those [plans] as many protective measures as possible. But there may already be too much degradation.”

According to the Puget Sound Partnership, created to coordinate efforts to improve the health of the sound by 2020, continued population growth and development will continue to be a major factor affecting marine health in the region. 

“Greater numbers of people in the region result in greater volumes of wastewater, more septic systems, and more sources of nutrients entering surface waters,” the partnership reported. “As a result of development, once forested land has been replaced with buildings, roads, and lawns.”

That’s why federal coordination of salmon-recovery efforts is critical, as is enforcement of violations, said Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. 

RELATED: Northwest Pacific Salmon Habitat Restoration Efforts Hampered by Development