North Coast Journal


For Love and Money: Restoring salmon habitat

by Jim Hight

[steelhead in stream]

(Steelhead migrate
up a stream.
Photo by Terry Roelofs)


IN 1988, CALIFORNIA SALMON TROLLERS brought home a record catch of 14.7 million pounds. A Eureka-based troller with average luck earned $90,000 that year, after expenses.

Three years later, fish landings were so low that the same troller earned about $4,000.

The turnabout was a disappointment but not really a surprise to salmon trollers who had been through such ups and downs before. Good ocean conditions three or four years after a wet spawning year could bring a bountiful season like 1988. El Nino currents on top of inland droughts and other mysterious rhythms of nature could conspire to create a year like 1991.

But one thing about the California salmon populations wasn't at all mysterious to the trollers: Despite any comfort 1988's numbers might have provided to others, they knew that fish stocks were declining over the long term because of serious problems up the rivers and streams.

Dams and hydraulic mining had decimated salmon stocks in the Central Valley rivers. While North Coast rivers were also dammed, logging was a prime culprit in destroying fish habitat here. The steep timberlands proved more fragile than the early loggers knew, and by the mid-1960s, after two floods in 10 years, "the denuded watersheds (were) roaded and gullied beyond belief ... stream beds choked with debris and sediments," wrote state Fish and Game official Scott Downie.

By the early 1970s, salmon trollers were joining advisory committees, publishing reports on the fish crisis and recommending legislation to protect salmon. They initiated the "Salmon Stamp" tax on their own earnings to fund restoration.

To repair streams that were no longer healthy for salmon or the sea-run steelhead trout, fishermen also began working quietly with the timber companies that owned the watersheds. They went after federal and state grants to do restoration work, developed alliances with conservation groups like California Trout and helped draw legions of students and volunteers into stream restoration.

By the early 1990s, government actions had pushed more and more salmon-trollers out of business. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council progressively restricted ocean fishing to preserve the depleted salmon populations, and the Commerce Department shifted salmon allocations toward river-based Indian fishing.

Then, in July 1995, two years after conservation groups had petitioned for it, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed listing the coho salmon as "threatened."

Motivated by these outside pressures and a desire to do the right thing, Simpson Timber, Pacific Lumber Co., (PALCO), Sierra Pacific Industries and other companies are mobilizing as never before to restore watersheds from the stream channels to the ridge lines. They're hiring scientists who used to criticize them and embracing concepts of watershed assessment that were known only among academics and the eco-fringe 15 years ago.

This apparent shift in industry priorities may have been inevitable, but it was no doubt facilitated by the patient, persistent salmon trollers, determined to restore the resource that once sustained them, if not for their use, perhaps for their grandchildren's.



On a foggy June morning, Bill Matson [photo at left] stands on the banks of McCready Gulch under a dense canopy of redwoods. The peace and beauty of the scene don't impress him as much as a large stump wedged deep into the stream bed. "That root mass forms good hiding places," he says, "And lots of bugs can collect there in the still water."

Next to the stump is a wide bed of gravel under six inches of water. Matson frowns as if seeing a rat in the kitchen. "It's all silted in. The fish won't hatch there."

The retired salmon troller can envision a female chinook trying to wriggle loose enough gravel to create a redd (nest) for her eggs. Even if she succeeds in burying the eggs deeply enough so they don't wash downstream, the tiny hatchings will probably be cemented in by the silt, starving soon after consuming their yolk sacs.

But salmon are apparently finding some more suitable nesting sites elsewhere in this gulch and in other stream channels of the Freshwater Creek basin, just east of Eureka. In fact, at least 700 adult coho returned from the sea to spawn last fall and winter -- a relatively strong population for this species in a small watershed.

Twenty years ago, Freshwater looked more like an environmental train wreck than a basin well on its way to recovery.

While it was never dammed to irrigate dry country over the mountains -- as the Trinity, Klamath and Eel river systems were -- much of the Freshwater watershed was blocked to up-migrating salmon by culverts and log jams. Early loggers had built railroads in some stream channels and used others to skid logs downhill, scouring out the complex structure of pools, riffles and cover that fish depend on. Later timber roads eroded and silted up much of the stream bed. And the creek's bottomland estuary had been channelized, diked and filled for livestock pasture, disrupting the ancient patterns of water flow and streamside vegetation that the salmon rely upon to survive their critical passage from fresh to salt water.

Freshwater Creek is a friendlier place for fish today, thanks to two decades of work by hundreds of individuals, state and federal agencies, restoration groups like Humboldt Fish Action Council and the timber company that owns most of the watershed, Pacific Lumber.

Barriers have been removed and many of the channels have been restored to an appropriately complex mix of covered area, pools and riffles. Long culverts of corrugated pipe under the county road have been "baffled" to allow returning spawners resting places. Banks have been stabilized with plantings of deciduous and conifer trees. And two small landowners east of Old Arcata Road have fenced off the stream channel to protect its banks from grazing livestock.

With a small-scale hatchery and rearing operation, the coho populations have been boosted to the point where no hatchery spawning of coho is needed. And springtime "migrant trapping" tracks healthy numbers of juvenile coho in the streams.

When Hilda Diaz-Soltero, regional manager for NMFS, toured the watershed July 18, she said she was "profoundly impressed by the collaborative efforts towards restoration that showed results."

But restoration in Freshwater is by no means finished. In fact, its most important phase is just beginning.

Like stream restoration projects across the state and country, the efforts in Freshwater have focused primarily on "in-stream" projects: removing barriers, restoring habitat, raising fish.

(Logging and road
building on steep
slopes increase erosion.
Photo courtesy of
Pat Higgins.)



But until "upslope" erosion sources are repaired, much in-stream habitat work will be ineffective.

Erosion is a natural process caused by rain and wind, but when logging roads cut through miles of steep, upslope terrain, soil tends to slide downhill more easily. More landslides will block streams, and spawning gravels will become clogged with the kind of salmon-killing silt that Bill Matson noticed in McCready Gulch.

"On many of these watersheds that are continuing to unravel because of a combination of poor road locations, poor road maintenance and inherently unstable geology with high seasonal rainfalls ... putting structures in streams is not going to solve problems," said fisheries Professor Terry D. Roelofs of Humboldt State University.

The first major upslope watershed-healing project in the North Coast was done over many years in the Redwood Creek basin after it was added to Redwood National Park in 1978. Another large project has been the restoration of Horse Linto Creek, a tributary to the Trinity north of Willow Creek. And other watersheds in Six Rivers National Forest are being restored under the ecosystem-management approach embodied in Option 9/Northwest Forest Plan.

Only in recent years have private timber companies begun to commission inventories of upslope conditions on their lands and commit staff and equipment time to fixing erosion problems. Entering into the process has been challenging for companies accustomed to carefully managing access to inside information about their operations, lest the data be used against them by environmental groups that monitor and often protest timber harvest practices and road building.

It's one thing to let a restorationist work in the stream channel, and an entirely different thing to allow them to assess the state of an entire watershed.

"We've exposed ourselves more (by inviting restoration workers) on the land," said Henry Alden, timberlands manager for PALCO.

With federal and state funding, scores of displaced salmon trollers are being trained how to identify potential erosion problems -- such as old "Humboldt" dirt-and-log bridges, plugged culverts and ditches, and crumbling roadbeds -- and to estimate the costs of fixing them.

"We do it by calculating how many cubic yards of sediment could go into a salmon-bearing stream, and how much it will cost to remove it," said Hugh Holt, a former salmon troller who's done upslope work in Freshwater and on Simpson lands on the South Fork of the Trinity.

"If the work is all done, it will have a very large, long-term effect on the habitat, a positive effect that will extend beyond my generation's life span."

Fixing the erosion problems requires heavy equipment: backhoes, excavators, dump trucks. The potential sediment is moved to a location where it won't go into the stream. Roads can either be upgraded or decommissioned, the latter requiring a "re-contouring" of the hillside.

A detailed report provided by PALCO showed that 13,573 cubic yards of sediment deemed likely to erode downhill into Freshwater Creek and its tributaries have been removed since last summer. The company estimates it spent $71,592 to accomplish this.

Most of the upslope assessment and restoration projects in Humboldt County are designed and overseen by Pacific Watershed Associates, consultants to PALCO, Simpson and other companies. The company is run by Dan Hagans and Bill Weaver, two former National Park Service geologists who designed much of the pioneering Redwood Creek restoration project.

PWA's involvement at this level is a barometer of just how much the climate has changed. Hagans and Weaver are known for a rigorously scientific approach, and they have been critical in the past of habitat restoration projects that ignored the enormous upslope erosion problems associated with logging and road-building.

"For a long time it seemed like the timber industry wanted to do a few little projects and say, 'See, we're fish friendly.' But now they really want to deal with things on the whole landscape level," said Mitch Farro, a former troller who's been working in restoration since 1980. "It tells me which ones intend to be around here for another 50 years and which ones are more interested in gettin' while the gettin's good."

But if healthier watersheds, restored fish runs and good community relations are the carrots drawing timber companies into upslope restoration efforts, then the coho listing is the stick threatening them from behind.

The embattled, underfunded Endangered Species Act of 1973 is still the law of the land. A listing would give the National Marine Fisheries Service oversight of land-use activities in watersheds considered to be coho habitat. Depending upon how the agency defines this, it could cover most of the county.

Even if NMFS-directed oversight gives timber companies a lot of latitude, the listing will provide environmental groups added leverage to stop coho-harming activities in federal courts, as the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) has done repeatedly to PALCO on behalf of the "threatened" marbled murrelet.

The understaffed NMFS has been slow to list the coho, but a federal court forced the agency to make a decision by the end of July. At press-time, NMFS had indicated it would seek a three- or six-month extension for further study. Certain runs of steelhead are on a later timetable for listing consideration, and fisheries biologists say that spring-run chinook should also be listed.

(Tom Weseloh prepares
hatchery "fry" for
release into a tributary
of Freshwater Creek.)

While the agency could ultimately render a "no listing" decision, most observers believe "threatened" status for the coho is coming. "It will happen," said Tom Weseloh of CalTrout and Humboldt Fish Action Council. "The science says it's inevitable."

In response to the pending coho listing, timber and other resource-based industries recently formed Fish, Forests and Farms Community. The group is an industry alternative to the state-sponsored Coastal Salmon Initiative, and it's developing "aquatic field protocols" with the goal of facilitating salmon and steelhead recovery.

Although unstated, the group surely hopes that these protocols will become the basis for "habitat conservation plans" that will enable landowners to keep logging or farming above coho streams.

A NMFS spokesman added that the agency may work with the California Board of Forestry to revise timber harvest rules in zones where the coho are threatened.


Another federal action is looming that will also have an enormous impact on North Coast salmon and steelhead. In September, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit will make a decision regarding how much water can be diverted from the upper reaches of the Trinity River to the Central Valley Project. A broad coalition in Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties is urging him to reduce the diversion and increase flows into the Trinity.

"The Trinity has been just screwed for the last 30 years," said Weseloh. "Out of an annual flow of 1.2 million acre feet of water, they've diverted an average of 1 million to the Central Valley. It's changed the contours and character of the river bed. The capacity to rear fish in the main stem is greatly diminished. Without the flushing flows, it's filled in with sediment."

Weseloh points to the reverberating economic impact of depressed Klamath and Trinity river fishing. "People buy tackle, licenses, food; they rent boats. All these things add up, especially for the small communities." (See "News Briefs" for more information.)

Opposing an increase in west-flowing Trinity River water are Central Valley agriculture interests.


People have fished for salmon and steelhead on the North Coast since long before European-Americans settled here. Robust populations of chinook, coho, steelhead and other fishes were the foundation of the wealth and culture of North Coast Indians.

When white settlers arrived, they began harvesting the abundant resource for subsistence and commerce. Trolling boats of progressively better efficiency and seaworthiness plied the seas, and salmon were an important food source for North Coast families.

"The average salmon we caught then weighed 40 pounds," wrote Esma D. Hunt in a Humboldt Historian essay on her family's Eel River fishing trips in the 1920s. "We would take large slices to the neighbors ... and my mother would make a salad of cold salmon, with homemade mayonnaise and thin-sliced pickles."

Grilled, baked, canned, smoked, Pacific salmon is still popular. But will ports like Eureka and Fort Bragg ever host fleets of hundreds of trollers again? Will up-migrating salmon ever roar like a freight train up the Eel River, as old-timers remember?

Probably not.

"We know we're making things more fish friendly, but we'll never get back to those historic populations of salmon and steelhead," said Scott Downie, Fish and Game Habitat Supervisor and restoration guru of the Eel River system. "You can't put 30 million people in the state of California, plumb it for water distribution and export so many millions of boards out of the North Coast counties without impacting fish and wildlife."

This year's expected return of Klamath-Trinity salmon and steelhead is the highest in years (based on counts of 2- and 3-year-old fish returning last year), and quotas for sportfishing, Indian fishers and the remaining commercial trollers have been raised accordingly.

But habitat restorationists don't like to count successes year to year. In fact, they worry that success stories, even about their own restoration projects, will relieve public concern and erode the political support necessary to pay for continuing restoration and enforce fish-friendly watershed management practices.

Those costs will be considerable. To restore the Redwood Creek basin (incorporated into the park in 1978) the National Park Service spent $29 million over 17 years, decommissioned 176 miles of roads, and removed 750,000 cubic yards of dirt-and-log "Humboldt" stream crossings.

But that restoration project was conducted on land where road-building and logging will never occur again. A wild card that raises the stakes for restoration on private lands is the question of how upslope restoration will coexist with ongoing timber harvests.

Environmental groups like EPIC and the Northcoast Environmental Center contend that current timber harvest practices and inadequate oversight by the California Department of Forestry are degrading watersheds at this moment.

They're alarmed about pending timber harvests all over the region, including two on Humboldt Bay tributaries next to the "model" Freshwater Creek basin: Elk River and Jacoby Creek.

Even in the Freshwater basin, environmentalists and PALCO disagree over the causes of recent landslides that have left one tributary, Little Freshwater Creek, so full of sediment that the Humboldt Fish Action Council won't touch it. While the company says the slides are natural, a spokesman for the NEC says that airplane flights over the area reveal that the slides stem from recent timber harvests.

The salmon-trollers strictly avoid taking sides in these environmental controversies. They're unfailingly complimentary toward Simpson, PALCO and Sierra Pacific, in particular, for their cooperation.

But they also concede that the pressure brought by environmentalists and the Endangered Species Act are part of the equation that seems to be moving the timber industry to become more salmon-friendly.

"If the listing went away, you'd legitimately have to ask if the current amount of energy and vigilance that the listing process has created would maintain itself," said Mitch Farro.

(Left: Hugh Holt removes a
downstream migrant trap.)







(At right, Jan Duncan counts
juvenile salmon.)

Salmon trollers like Farro, Bill Matson and Hugh Holt don't harbor many illusions about reviving their small fishing businesses any time soon.

Depleted fish stocks and management strategies they describe as anti-troller will probably keep them from making a living again "in the gentle roll of the open ocean," that Matson described in an essay for the 1991 book "California's Salmon and Steelhead."

But they're too busy with their new mission to nurse regrets. They've worked hard to get to this place and time, and as the major landowners on the North Coast seem to be getting serious about restoring battered watersheds from top to bottom, it's a very exciting time.

Perhaps most encouraging are the new things they've learned about the fish themselves, their tremendous capacity to survive and rebound from adverse conditions.

Once thought to be faithful to a specific spawning ground, salmon and steelhead are now known to stray and "colonize" new habitat. As new creeks in a watershed open up, returning spawners will move into them.

"I can show you two tributaries I know of that salmon hadn't been in for a decade due to low flows," said Farro. "With the rains last year, off they charged and went up every tiny tributary and spawned."

Opening up and restoring those creeks and streams along thousands of miles of North Coast watercourses once populated by salmon and steelhead will take intense work over many decades. But it's probably the least the human species owes to the hook-nosed pilgrim that has fed us for so many centuries.


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