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If you rebuild it...

will they come back?



ABOVE: Seth Buckerman and David Simpson stand by Mill Creek Culvert. (Photo by Bob Doran)

SALMON HAVE A SENSE OF PLACE. THEY KNOW WHERE THEY come from. After spending years roaming the ocean they will find the river where they were born and swim upstream to spawn before they die.

We're not completely sure how they find their way home. Fisheries biologists think it has to do with their sense of smell -- the flavor of the water from their own watershed tells them, "This is the place."

In broad ecological terms the salmon, which grew large grazing in the oceans for years, returned a wealth of nutrients to soil systems upstream when they returned to spawn. But lately the fish are not returning in the same numbers. The stocks have fallen to dangerous levels and we are not sure why. Some blame excessive fishing, a few point fingers at the nonhuman predators who feast on the fish. Almost everyone agrees that El Niño and other changes in weather patterns have had a negative effect.

William Stelle, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Northwest Region, points to problems in the salmon habitat. In proposing the addition of certain stocks of salmon and steelhead to the list of threatened species, he said:

"The fundamental point is that our salmon populations are sick because our watersheds are sick. We won't recover salmon until we recover the health of the watersheds which are their home. It is the heart of the problem, and the toughest part of the challenge."

Up and down the Pacific Coast nearly 400 community-based groups have formed, intent on playing a part in improving the health of our watersheds.

Delegates from groups throughout California will gather this weekend in Fortuna for the 18th Annual Salmonid Restoration Conference. They will meet with representatives from government agencies, fishermen's organizations and other groups concerned with survival of salmon to discuss regulations, share strategies and make plans.

The session on Saturday morning includes presentations by two local groups. Troy Fletcher of the Yurok Tribe will speak on the tribe's collaboration with Simpson Timber in efforts to restore the runs on the Klamath.

David Simpson, of the Mattole Salmon Group, will be joined by Seth Zuckerman from the Mattole Restoration Council and Rondal Snodgrass of Sanctuary Forest talking about innovative projects in the Mattole watershed.

While hundreds of groups have formed since then, the Mattole Restoration Council has been working since 1983 to aid in the recovery of the Mattole River watershed. It's a grassroots organization in the strictest sense.

There are between 2,500 and 3,000 residents living on about 900 private parcels in the Mattole watershed. This includes the small towns of Petrolia, Honeydew, Ettersburg and Whitethorn.

Freeman House is the executive director of the Mattole Restoration Council. The Petrolia resident is also the author of "Totem Salmon," a book recently included among five nominees for "Best Nonfiction" by the Bay Area Book Reviewers' Association.

"The salmon is simply a magnificent creature," says House enthusiastically. "It's easy for their story to capture an even mildly poetic imagination. But beyond that there is a cultural relationship in the fact that they have been feeding people on the North Coast for as long as people have been around."

[photo of Freeman House] Freeman House pauses on porch of the Mattole Restoration Council in Petrolia.
(Photo by Bob Doran)

The story of how he ended up working toward healing salmon habitat began over 30 years ago in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

"Freeman and I go back a long way," said David Simpson, a founding member of the Mattole Salmon Group. "In the late '60s we were both involved in a movement in San Francisco called the Diggers. We were sort of social radicals who envisioned developing alternatives to the old culture within its shell -- developing new mechanisms, new infrastructures that were not so wasteful, not so corrupted by mass consumerism."

At the end of the '60s House became a commercial salmon fisherman and Simpson migrated north to become a resident of Humboldt County. Where Simpson first settled was not far from the headwaters of the Mattole River and that was where he first saw salmon spawning.

"My wife and I were looking for a place in the backwoods and we moved into the Mattole Valley about five miles out of Whitethorn. It was early in the back-to-the-land movement, as it were. In reality the spirit of that movement was an initiating force for salmon restoration."

Simpson had maintained contact with House. They both were involved with the Planet Drum Foundation, an organization promoting bioregionalism, the notion that social organization should be based on biological connections rather than political or economic boundaries.

In 1974, Simpson migrated downstream to Petrolia and began to put the principles of bioregionalism to work in a practical sense.

"I knew something about salmon from watching them spawn, but coming down river was a revelation. There was still an intact cultural link to the subsistence way of life. People poached salmon rather openly -- of course, they had to hide from the game warden."

A three-year drought from 1974-76 created a situation where there was not enough water in the river for the fish to get beyond the pools in the lower river, Simpson recalls. The poachers had a field day. "It was merciless. Thousands of fish were killed. It was a mean blow to the survival of our salmon."

But, Simpson notes, human and animal predators were not the biggest threat to the salmon. Their numbers were dwindling because of changes in their habitat.

The area already had a large amount of what House calls "background erosion," basically nature's contribution to the problem. The area hosts a meeting place for three major earthquake fault systems.

"The mountains that form the edges of our watershed are rising out of the sea at a rapid rate," said House. "What that means is that we have newer and less stable soils. In addition, the rain monitoring station in Honeydew is consistently the wettest place in California."

In the last 50 years most of the trees that covered the hillsides were cut. The majority of the timber that came out of the valley was harvested before 1975 when regulation of the logging industry was tightened. It happened quickly, said House.

"A bunch of events came together. There was a post-war building boom. There were shifts in technology that came directly out of the wartime effort. Douglas fir was recognized as the excellent timber it was. And there was a taxation schedule in Humboldt County that taxed landowners for their standing timber and stopped taxing them after they had cut it, so there was every incentive to go ahead a cut."

The timber harvest affected the salmon in a number of ways. The fish are sensitive to water temperature and without shade from the trees, the river's temperature rose. Roads cut into the woods and debris left behind from logging disrupted streams, often making them impassable. Hillsides exposed by logging brought increased erosion and silt filled places where the salmon had once spawned.

"It was obvious that something needed to be done or we were going to lose our salmon," said Simpson. "Everyone wanted to see something happen: the ranching community, the logging community, as well as the environmentalists who were a much weaker element in the community then."

In 1976 he and some of his neighbors sought and received a grant to do some research to find out what actually could be done to help the salmon runs.

"A neighbor, John Vargo, wrote a beautiful paper: a watershed analysis of Mill Creek. It really was the first document of its kind to come out. There was a public meeting called by a group of small commercial fishermen, basically back-to-the-landers who fished out of Shelter Cove and lived up in the Mattole headwaters.

"They called a meeting at the Redwood Monastery, a Trappist monastery that has quietly played a very important role in the life of our community.

"About 30 people came together including the late Nat Bingham, who had been a commercial fisherman and became a leading voice for salmon enhancement in Northern California."

[photo of salmon rearing hatch box] A crew gathers around the salmon rearing hatch box.
(photo courtesy of Mattole Salmon Group)

Also in attendance was Jerry Kreger, who had worked as a road geologist for the Forest Service in Alaska. He told of stream-side hatch boxes used there. Simpson and Vargo liked the small scale concept and investigated further. Bingham was the first on the North Coast to build and use one.

Around the same time Simpson began corresponding with the Department of Fish and Game regarding a culvert on Mill Creek, not far from the mouth of the river.

"The culvert under the county road had been replaced after the 1964 flood and they put it in at too steep an angle. It had become a major obstacle to fish passage. We urged the county and Fish and Game to fix it. That's really when our efforts started."

The culvert had a number of flaws. The steep angle had cut a channel all the way to the river. In order to get into the pipe the fish had to make a major leap. To make matter worse, the edge of the corrugated culvert was jagged.

After some urging the county agreed to tackle the problem. Simpson and his neighbors had a manual on fish passage from British Columbia with some suggested solutions. They showed it to the county engineer who agreed to try the plan.

The level of the creek bed leading to the culvert was raised so the fish didn't have so far to jump. Large rocks were placed to create a series of pools. Baffles were welded inside the pipe to slow the water and supply resting spots. The jagged edge was fixed.

By 1980 Simpson's old friend Freeman House had settled in Petrolia.

"Moving here put me where I wanted to be," said House. "And it gave me the opportunity to do the work I wanted to do -- something for the benefit of the fish."

"Freeman had this connection with salmon," said Simpson, "so it was natural for him to fit into this fledgling initiative we were trying to launch. He and I and a young master's candidate from Humboldt State, Gary Peterson, initiated the Mattole Salmon Group in 1980 to implement these hatch boxes."

It took negotiations running from 1978 to 1980 to get the Department of Fish and Game to approve their plan, in part because it set several precedents.

"The Mattole is remote and Fish and Game had basically written it off as a productive salmon river," Simpson said. "They were understaffed, and it was difficult for them to get people out here. For that reason it was apparent to us that either the residents had to do something or no one would."

"What was different about our approach was that we asked them to allow us to go in and take wild fish for their eggs," said House. "We asked the state to allow us to put weirs (fish traps) in the river which was against the law. We asked to take our fish closer to the spawning grounds than sports fishermen were allowed to. And we were doing it all as amateurs which flew in the face of an attitude of professional fisheries biologists."

The Mattole Salmon group began its hatchbox program in 1980. The following year it began doing salmon surveys. In 1983 a series of stream restoration and habitat improvement projects were instituted. That same year the Mattole Restoration Council was formed.

After two decades working on the problems of the salmon Simpson feels they have made a least a little progress.

"The way I look at this -- it's like trying to turn around a huge ship at sea. There have been such significant changes wrought in this watershed. We have lost 93 percent of our original forest. Then the big floods or '55 and '64 wreaked havoc on the valley.

"There is some healing going on. Some areas are becoming more stable. But the bottom third of the watershed is still a terrific mess. There is still a huge amount of sediment moving through and until the lower river clears itself we'll continue to have problems."

Approximately 84 percent of the land in the watershed is privately owned, the rest is in the King Range National Conservation Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Eel River Sawmills recently sold most of its old-growth holdings in an area known as Gilham Butte to a consortium including Ancient Forest International and the Save the Redwoods League. The land is being transferred to BLM management.

About 10 to 12 percent of the land in the valley is owned by the Pacific Lumber Co. and Barnum Timber. PL is logging or planning to log on Rainbow Ridge and Taylor Peak in the northeastern Mattole. The harvesting falls under the rules of its Habitat Conservation Plan which includes riparian protections. Barnum is engaged in what they call rehabilitation logging near Whitethorn, clear-cutting and replanting.

Simpson emphasized that his group does not advocate an end to logging in the area.

"What we want to see is sustainable forestry," he said.

MRC has an innovative program to deal with the fact that most of the logging in the valley took place before planting trees following a harvest was required by law.

Randy Stemler was a professional tree planter before he moved to the valley in the early '80s. He is the program manager for the MRC Reforestation Program. It's part of what he calls the "restoration economy."

"There's a lot of money being spent locally focused on natural resource reinvestment. We go in and identify sites where it's biologically appropriate to do reforesting. Then I arrange for financing, train the crews and plant trees where they were once growing."

[photo of tree planters] Frank Etter and Dave Kahn plant Douglas Fir on B.L.M. land.
(photo courtesy of Mattole Restoration Council)

In its 10 years of operation the program has been sponsored by several northern California catalog companies. Smith and Hawken was the first. Current financing comes from HearthSong and Klutz, the folks who make those books with juggling balls, yo-yos and harmonicas attached.

The companies have contributed more than $130,000. Last year that money paid for planting 36,654 trees. In its eight-year history the program has planted over 300,000 trees.

The seedlings are grown from seed coming from cones gathered in the Mattole Valley. It's part of that all important sense of place.

"It's similar to the hatchbox program where we only propagate native genetic stock for salmon," said Stemler. "There are no salmon from other rivers planted in these steams. We also don't want to bring in stock from other areas in terms of seed. We collect the seed cones, Smith River Nursery grows the trees and we plant the 2-year-old bare root seedlings back in the same neighborhood from which the seed came."

Jobs are created for cone harvesters who climb the Douglas fir trees collecting cones purchased by the Reforestation program. More jobs open up at tree-planting time.

House points to the importance of local people doing the work so that the residents develop a stake in the outcome and reinforce their identification with the place they live.

"It's an important part of our rationale that restoration work becomes a significant part of the local economy," adds House.

The money that goes into the salmon-enhancement projects comes from a variety of sources. The Legislature allocates a part of the funding, and part comes from a salmon stamp tax that California commercial fishermen imposed on themselves in the mid-'80s.

"For a good 10- to 12-year period a large part of the restoration work in northern California was funded from that source," said House. "That's always impressed me.

"Of course, for the most part the California salmon fishermen have been driven out of business," said House, "so that isn't generating much revenue right now. Their fishing season has been diminished to almost nothing over the years and the recent listings are going to finish them off.

"Nevertheless the statewide organization of commercial fishermen has supported the listings because they are looking to the long term. They supported restoration work for years, again looking to the long term."

And what is the long term?

"I can't honestly look forward beyond the term of my own life," said House. "And I know for a fact that the kind of goals I am working towards are the work of several generations.

[photo of student releasing fish.] Whitethorn School student releasing fish.
(photo courtesy of Mattole Salmon Group)

"I work out of the conviction that what's required for salmon populations and whole ecosystems to endure into the future is a rather dramatic cultural shift. We must change the way we think of ourselves and identify ourselves in relationship to the landscape and to our food.

"That's why the Restoration Council has always felt it important to keep supplying the population of the Mattole with information about where they live and the other species that live there. If we want to focus on this particular population of salmon, which is unique in the world, we have to begin to take seriously our identity as residents of watersheds."

The Mattole Restoration Council office is upstairs in the back of an old school house in Petrolia that also houses the Mattole Community Center. Two narrow rooms hold the Watershed Resource Center, a small library of books, pamphlets, newspapers, government reports -- a wealth of information about watersheds, about their restoration and everything you might want to know about the Mattole.

The office also houses the Mattole Geographic Information System Program and its computer data base of maps showing every creek in the watershed along with topography, aquatic environment, land ownership, land use history and other features.

Drew Barber runs the Mattole Ecological Education Program. Working with the MRC and the Mattole Salmon Group, he coordinates activities for kids in two school districts, actively engaging them in salmon rearing and watershed rehabilitation projects.

Another "educational" endeavor was a project Simpson describes as "the most fun I've ever had."

"We did a musical comedy, `Queen Salmon,' based on our efforts to save the salmon in the Mattole. It was a novel approach to salmon enhancement."

Simpson wrote the play and appeared in it.

"I played a cranky old logger who is resisting the new ways. Basically it was a way of manifesting the conflict within our community and about the need for the community to come together to try to save the resource we all loved."

The play eventually toured communities throughout the Northwest.

"I think it gave a lot of communities inspiration to face each other and to take on the job."

How is the job going in the Mattole?

House feels that the work of the Restoration Council is having an effect not just on the river and the salmon, but on the people who live in the watershed. Attitudes are changing.

"It has never been looked at systematically, but it's my very strong impression that timber-harvest practices have improved since we've been working in the watershed. Some is because of improved regulations and enforcement of the regulations, and some is because people have become more conscious of the Mattole as a place to be careful."

"The natural processes of recovery are at work if you let them work and we are very clear that our work is an augmentation of nature's healing process. The Restoration Council is explicitly working towards a point where restoration is no longer necessary, a time when the watershed and its human communities are healthy and self-sustaining."

Food for Thought


[Salmon Nation book cover]IF YOU GREW UP EATING COMMERCIALLY canned salmon, then looking at this book without reading it may make your mouth water. Facsimiles and reproductions of canned salmon labels begin on the cover and are scattered throughout.

If you think the book is about canned salmon, though, you would be only 10 percent correct. In a brief collection of chapters by various authors, the book outlines the history of human interactions with salmon in western North America and offers examples of how people are beginning to rethink and redo our relationships with the fish and the watersheds of which both salmon and people are a part. With its excellent maps depicting the status of salmon runs from California to Alaska, its contents are food for thought.

The editors and authors start with the premise that humans are an integral part of nature but need to learn how to live in it without degrading it. In the first chapter, "Recalling Celilo," artist and writer Elizabeth Woody, of Navajo/Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama descent, describes how First Nation's peoples of the Columbia Basin, and, by extension, other native peoples of western North America, have learned "from the land how to live upon it."

In recounting her childhood experiences and from stories told her by her parents and grandparents, she emphasizes the importance of thanking nature through the first salmon ceremony. This ceremony -- in which the other three sacred foods, venison, roots and berries, are consumed in order -- is still carried on in spite of diminished salmon runs of which the building of the Dalles Dam that flooded the main upriver fishing site of Celilo Falls is a partial cause.

Seth Zuckerman and Jim Lichatowich, in a chapter titled "Muddied Water, Muddled Thinking," and Richard Manning in Chapter 3, describe two additional models of the ways humans have interacted with nature: unlimited abuse of a seemingly unlimited resource and utilitarian management through technology. Zuckerman and Lichatowich suggest that much of the debate over who or what is to blame for the drastic reductions in salmon runs can be likened to a circular firing squad.

They focus on those activities that have changed streams in ways that have made them inhospitable to salmon. Trapping out beaver in the first half of the 19th century, overfishing, irrigation, livestock grazing, logging, dams and urban sprawl all share responsibility. What we need to realize, according to the authors, is that "salmon don't just live in streams, they live in watersheds."

Not realizing this simple but subtle fact, our attempts to fix the problem, beginning as early as the 1870s, have relied on hatcheries, a technologically simple fix that assumes humans can know complex ecosystems like we can know how to fix automobiles.

The 10 million to 16 million salmon returning to the Columbia River and additional millions spawning in the major and minor streams from Southern California to Alaska appeared to be inexhaustible to the first European inhabitants. Manning discusses how, in less than 50 years preceding the 20th century, this mass of fish was reduced in numbers by those who saw salmon as an open-access resource.

The result? "Ghost Town," which is the title of his chapter. The most efficient technology was that which pulled the most fish from the water in shortest possible time. After all, if you did not get them, someone else would, and anyway, there are so many that they could never be fished out.

[PHOTO OF ZUCKERMAN] Seth Zuckerman, one of the editor/authors of "Salmon Nation, People and Fish at the Edge," stresses the importance of the health of the watershed to the salmon.
(photo courtesy of Ecotrust)

Of course they could, but hatcheries could rescue us from our shortsightedness. After all, a chinook is a chinook even though that salmon raised in a hatchery costs $62.50. Too late did we realize, he finds, that each watershed has unique characteristics to which native runs of salmon have adapted.

In the last portion of his chapter Manning reminds me of the bumper sticker I saw in the summer of 1997 on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. "Friends don't let friends eat farmed salmon." In words and diagrams the author argues that the paradox of declining salmon runs and relatively cheap salmon in the store, as well as negative environmental, economic and social impacts, can be attributed to farmed salmon. He calls the farming of a salmon a "Rube Goldberg machine that has replaced nature's intricate web by diminishing the productive capacity of nature. We live off the capital, not the interest."

In his chapter, "Keep the Gift Moving," Freeman House, in an essay adapted from his book, "Totem Salmon," reviewed earlier in the North Coast Journal, discusses how the lessons he learned as a commercial fisherman led him to become an activist for restoration.

House describes the history of ocean-going salmon fishing by looking at the increasingly efficient extraction of salmon. Having worked on the boats, he is able to give the reader a sense of what that experience is like. The flavor of his thoughts can be grasped in his opening words:

"There is a hard knot of relationship in the act of killing a creature of another species. It is an act that dissolves the illusions of individuality, of separateness. Perhaps this explains the terror that attends each such occasion, the awe that has inspired rituals and regulations, ceremonies and prayers in all human cultures throughout the ages. We are reminded in the most mundane way of our own mortality, an idea with which we may or may not have come to terms."

In the final chapter, "Toward a New Salmon Economy," Zuckerman calls for a new relationship between humans and salmon by showing us some of the people who are engaged in this work. For him, salmon can "tantalize today with the dream of a place in which people can harvest what we need and stand back while the rest of the wild fulfills its own destiny." Citizens restoring salmon habitat, commercial fishers who "handle their fish like gifts instead of cargo" and fish-buyers who "value the difference between a factory fish and a wild fish" are showing the way to how we can live sustainably.

Dick Hansis is coordinator of Environmental Science at Humboldt State University. He can be found at Latitude 41N, Longitude 124W.

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