Where Wild Salmon Still Spawn

Despite dam, agricultural and urban development, the Skagit River remains one of the most beautiful and productive waterways on the West Coast

  • Douglas Gantenbein
  • Dec 01, 2003
ON A BREEZY, sunny May afternoon, Washington State's Skagit River delta seems like paradise. Crops ranging from strawberries to potatoes to tulips peek up from rich, dark soil. Along canals that crisscross the delta, sparrows and red-winged blackbirds dart through the air. And the Skagit itself hisses rapidly along, cutting a forked path around Fir Island before rushing on toward Puget Sound, only a mile or so away.

But Larry Wasserman, director of the Skagit System Cooperative--a consortium of the Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattle and Upper Skagit Indian tribes--contends that the delta is not quite what it seems. "This land all was diked and drained for farming well over 100 years ago," he says, standing atop one of those dikes, a broad earthen ribbon that helps keep salty Puget Sound tidewater from encroaching on the farmland. Using a pocket map for a visual, he shows how, in the past, nearly all of Fir Island and the rest of the delta were swept over regularly by the day's tides, providing ideal habitat for young salmon making their way to the sea. In the tidal marshes the fish could lurk among grasses and in shallow water, fattening up for their trip while largely sheltered from predators. Today, says Wasserman, the dikes and a network of tide gates have eliminated much of that marshland. "Seventy-five percent of it is gone," he says.

The loss of salmon habitat lies at the heart of a battle much fiercer than this bucolic landscape would suggest. The Skagit River and its delta are linchpins for long-range plans to restore salmon runs throughout Puget Sound, which extends for some 100 miles from the Strait of Juan de Fuca southward past Seattle. To help increase runs in the Skagit and, hence, in Puget Sound, the Skagit System Cooperative joined a coalition that hopes to open some of the canal tide gates that bar fish access. The coalition also wants to restore sufficient delta farmland to a functioning estuary. But achieving these goals will not be easy. Farmers, seen as something of an endangered species themselves in Washington State, have garnered wide support for leaving the Skagit delta just as it is.

That the Skagit River has become the focus of this salmon-restoration effort attests to the river's remarkable nature. Although little-known outside its home state, the Skagit is a big river, second in size in Washington only to the massive Columbia. From its headwaters in British Columbia the Skagit flows 300 miles before reaching its delta, accounting for at least 20 percent of the fresh water entering Puget Sound.

Today, the Skagit is the only river in Washington that still hosts native populations of all five Pacific salmon--chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and pink--as well as bull trout, steelhead and cutthroat trout. Grizzly bears and wolves patrol the river's upper reaches, and elk and cougars roam the central portion. Birds appear everywhere along the river, from black swifts that build nests behind mountain waterfalls to platoons of bald eagles that perch in Douglas fir trees overlooking the river to flocks of snow geese that clamor out of the sky each November to forage in the delta. "The Skagit has incredible potential to secure a future for salmon and other wildlife species for generations to come," says Paula Del Giudice, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Northwest Natural Resource Center in Seattle. "The success or failure of restoring Puget Sound salmon to abundance rests on the efforts in the Skagit."

RIVER RESIDENTS: Grizzly bears, such as this mother and cub, along with wolves and other wildlife find habitat around the Skagit headwaters in the mountains of British Columbia.

The Skagit is productive because it remains unusually intact. Even though its terminus is barely an hour's drive from Seattle and from Vancouver, British Columbia, both sprawling metropolises, the river's headwaters are remote, lying mostly in the North Cascades range, one of North America's most isolated and rugged areas. Some 300 glaciers punctuate the high country, providing a ready source of meltwater even after winter snows have vanished elsewhere, a benefit to salmon as well as other species. Says John Reidel, a geologist with North Cascades National Park, "Those glaciers provide really important stability to the aquatic ecosystem. They melt when we have a seasonal drought, and sometimes we'll have very little rainfall through July and August."

But these glaciers may serve as a metaphor for a river that wears two faces, one of health and one of decline. Reidel says that the glaciers have lost 44 percent of their mass in the past 150 years, apparently because of global warming, and the pace of that loss seems to be accelerating. By 2100, in fact, the glaciers might largely vanish, dramatically altering and perhaps even destroying the nature of the Skagit River and its watershed.

American Indians moved into the Skagit region soon after the last Ice Age, using it as both homeland and trade route. Many places in the Skagit drainage still bear the poetic names given them by the native people: Nooksack, Shuksan, Nohokomeen, Hozomeen and Stehekin.

Photo: © ART WOLFE
RARE BIRDS: Trumpeter swans mingle with pintail ducks and other waterfowl at Skagit Flats (above). In Washington, the 300-mile-long Skagit is bested in size only by the Columbia. A haven for wildlife, the river is the linchpin for the success of restoring Puget Sound salmon--chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink. The central stretch of the river is also a familiar haunt of elk and cougars.

European settlers began exploring the Skagit in the middle of the 19th century, first looking for gold in its upper reaches and later settling along the lower 100 miles to farm and log. The delta was particularly attractive to farmers, which is why by 1900 most of its marshes had been converted to farmland by diking and draining. Then, beginning in the 1920s, three dams were built across the Skagit where it raced past Jack Mountain, Hozomeen Peak and the crenellated Picket Range, the wildest, most rugged stretch of peaks in the lower 48 states. Thanks largely to these dams, only about the first 100 miles of the river are accessible now to salmon. In addition, many of the valley walls along the Skagit's middle reaches were clear-cut under U.S. Forest Service administration during the 1950s and 1960s.

Still, the dams proved less damaging to salmon than did similar projects along the Columbia River, if only because the Skagit dams are located far enough upstream that they did not cut off important, lower-level spawning areas. And in 1968 the creation of North Cascades National Park did much to secure the Skagit's birthright. Extending 35 miles from where the Skagit enters the United States to near its relatively flat middle stretch, the park protects some of the last unlogged valleys that drain into the river--in particular Big Beaver Valley, with its stands of huge western red cedar, Douglas fir, western hemlock and silver fir. It offers a glimpse of the forested paradise that once cloaked this entire region.

The park also ensures that much of the Skagit's key upper watershed will remain untouched--protection granted to few other significant rivers among the Cascades. The Skagit is thus a final haven for salmon runs, which nevertheless are not as large as they were a few decades ago. The number of Skagit chinook salmon has even sunk so low that it is federally listed as threatened. Chinook runs in the Skagit numbered 50,000 or more in the 1930s but today fewer than 1,000. Many fish experts contend that the loss of the Skagit delta estuary prevents salmon from taking full advantage of the river's otherwise healthy condition.

The salmon decline has had dramatic impacts on area tribes. Brian Cladoosby, tribal chairman for the Swinomish, says, "Salmon have always been part of our cultural activities--for 12 months of the year we could take salmon out of the river to support our religious and cultural traditions. But we can't do that any more."

The key to salmon recovery is tidal-marsh restoration, and as Cladoosby sees it, restoring at least a small part of the Skagit delta to marsh is little enough to ask. Objectives that local tribes would like to achieve include making tide gates more fish-friendly so young salmon can pass through them and gain access to canals, reducing fertilizer runoff by using 200-foot-wide buffer zones to insulate the river and delta canals from farmland, and in some places removing dikes to restore marshes, either on state-owned land or on private land purchased from farmers.

In an effort to reduce pressure on the salmon, the tribes have cut fishing in the river by 80 percent, working with state fishery officials each year to ensure that sufficient numbers of salmon migrate upstream to spawn. But Cladoosby believes others need to make a commitment to the river, too. "We've done our part," he says. "We've taken our nets out of the river, and we still haven't seen the runs return. We haven't had a full-fleet fishery in 15 years."

Sport and nontribal commercial fisheries share the salmon catch equally with the tribes and also have experienced significant reductions in their allowable catch. But none of the fishing groups is growing fat on the fishery. "Taking a half share of a small catch leaves you with a very small catch," says Del Giudice. "Half of not very much is really just not very much."

The desire to restore the marshes puts salmon advocates on a collision course with politically powerful opponents: farmers. Although much of western Washington's farmland has been paved over for developments such as freeways and shopping malls, the Skagit delta remains an extensively farmed region. That alone makes it valuable, not only to the third- and fourth-generation farmers who grow some 70 crops there but also to urbanites who enjoy such activities as the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, an explosion of colors.

Farmers fret that adding buffers and taking other steps to help salmon simply will cost too much and that opening drainage canals to salt water could damage cropland. Moreover, say Skagit farmers, loss of farms and farmland could reduce the critical mass of agricultural activities required to ensure that tractor dealers, feed companies and other farm-related businesses survive.

Pressed to change their ways and accept modifications in river management, the farmers fought back, winning a major legislative victory in spring 2003, when Governor Gary Locke signed a bill that exempted farmers from state rules requiring fish passage at tide gates. Skagit County commissioners soon followed suit by refusing to require farmers to provide buffers between their land and water. And the farmers are not at all apologetic about it. "We're taking care of this land," says John Roozen, a tulip farmer whose family has worked the Skagit delta for decades. "We believe we're the best friends these fish have." Without farms, he says, the flood-prone delta will convert to suburban tract housing and shopping malls, a fate that has befallen farmland that once surrounded Seattle. Creeping suburban pressure is indeed mounting as commuters from Seattle find the low housing prices and rural environment around the Skagit increasingly attractive.

Fish advocates do not dispute that suburban encroachment is a threat. But neither do they believe that helping fish will destroy farming. Instead, they say, salmon protection could put money in farmers' pockets. For example, to limit the effects of conservation measures on farmers, conservationists would like to purchase development rights to farmland affected by fish-protection measures, ensuring that the land does not sprout condos while also giving farmers fair compensation should they decide to sell. "We're supportive of keeping the farmland from converting to suburban development, but not at the expense of fish," says Del Giudice. "Salmon and steelhead in this watershed are not going to recover unless some farmland is restored to vital rearing habitat."

Today, some 35 different groups are working to protect the Skagit, a number that includes the National Wildlife Federation as well as homegrown outfits such as the Skagit Land Trust. Among recent accomplishments: protecting one of the largest heron nesting sites on the West Coast, located near the Skagit delta, from a planned manufacturing facility and protecting nearly 600 acres of critical salmon habitat along the middle range of the Skagit. "Everyone I know here wants the valley to remain healthy," says Molly Doran, executive director of the trust. "They may have different views on how to do that, but they all want the same thing."

Achieving a resolution satisfactory to both farm and fish advocates, however, is at the moment an elusive target, with farmers arguing that doing more for salmon will simply put them out of business. Says Shirley Solomon, president of the Skagit Watershed Council, a local group dedicated to improving salmon runs, "The discussion has been framed in terms of survival, and when it's cast as a survival issue, nobody wins. We understand that agricultural interests need a certain amount of acreage in order to stay viable. But we also understand that what now is agricultural land once was something else, and we'd like to get back some of what once was."

Douglas Gantenbein, author of the new book A Season of Fire: Four Months on the Firelines in America's Forests, is Seattle correspondent for The Economist.

Saving Salmon

Protecting almost-pristine salmon-spawning habitat such as the Skagit River is a high priority for the National Wildlife Federation, which is busy on many fronts protecting these endangered fish. NWF in September led a group of sports and commercial fishermen in a legal action against a Skagit County Diking District for killing Puget Sound salmon in violation of the Endangered Species Act. NWF is working to protect coastal salmon habitat in Oregon's Tillamook rain forest, threatened by logging, and to restore in Washington, Oregon and Idaho fish that are severely jeopardized by dams on the Snake River. NWF is seeking to reduce the impacts of development, industry and agriculture on salmon in Washington's Puget Sound and to protect habitat where salmon still thrive in healthy numbers, as in Alaska. Protecting and restoring salmon in native habitats also honors treaty obligations with Native Americans.

Urp! Lewis and Clark Sample the Salmon

The salmon found in the Skagit River have long been an important food for the Pacific Northwest's Indian people. When the Lewis and Clark expedition rolled down the western side of the Rockies and into the Columbia Basin in 1805, they found that most of the basin Indians subsisted primarily on roots and fish.

One reason for this piscean emphasis was the area's lack of large wildlife prey species. The Columbia Basin and the Cascades-Pacific Coast regions had the highest densities of human occupation that Lewis and Clark encountered during their trip across the West and the lowest levels of big mammals. For example, in the Columbia Basin, the expedition found none of the elk, pronghorn antelope, bison and bighorn sheep that were so plentiful on the plains, although elk did occur in the Cascades-Pacific Coast area.

No one knows why big mammals were scarce west of the Rockies, but one hypothesis suggests that earlier hunting cultures had wiped out these game animals. Another possibility is that the many horses that had invaded the region since the early 1700s--an estimated 2 million wild horses alone--out competed native grazing species. And climate change may have had an effect. (For more on the effects of pre-European human populations on wildlife, see BioScience magazine, October 2003).

To get through this region of sparse game, the Lewis and Clark expedition as it crossed Idaho and Oregon ate domestic animals--195 dogs, to be exact, as well as a few horses. They also resorted to eating crow (literally) and even a coyote. Needless to say, when they met Nez Perce Indians who could give them salmon, dried berries, and cakes made of camas root, they jumped at the opportunity.

With such new foods in the larder, the men's hunger may have been satisfied, but the sudden switch from eating mostly meat to devouring large quantities of fish and vegetation may have contributed to a fit of illness that swept through the expedition in late September 1805.

The Battle of the Digestive Tract began on September 18, when Clark pushed ahead of the main body of the expedition, traveling with six of his men. Two days later, they met some Nez Perce Indians, bought from them dried salmon and camas root cakes, ate up the new food, and then fell mildly ill--Clark thought from overeating. He sent a package of the foods to Lewis and the others, warning them not to overeat.

Lewis and the rest of the men rejoined Clark and the others on September 24 at a Nez Perce village on the Clearwater River, the Lewis contingent arriving "much fatigued and hungry," according to Clark's journal. Once in the village, and despite Clark's warning, the men "appeared to partake plentifully," of the Indian's dried salmon and other foodstuffs.

Then they got sick, especially Lewis. He and eight or nine of the men were more or less out of commission for a good week. Lewis was (in the creative grammar of Clark's journal) "scercely able to ride on a jentle horse" and several of the men were "So unwell that they were Compelled to lie on the Side of the road for Some time others obliged to be put on horses."

Four days later, the first men to get sick were starting to recover, but most of the rest were now ill, "Complaining of ther bowels, a heaviness at the Stomach & Lax."

Clark, meanwhile, was dosing his men with Rush's pills, a concoction of calomel, jalap, and six parts mercury to one part chlorine invented by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the foremost American physician of his day. The expedition had started out with 600 of the pills, which Rush recommended for practically any illness. Their effect on the digestive system was so powerful that the pills were called "Thunderclappers." They were the wrong prescription for men already suffering from dietary problems, so Clark's doctoring of his men may have prolonged rather than relieved their suffering.

Nevertheless, the expedition continued to buy salmon, both fresh and dried, from the Indians, along with dried berries. The men complained about what Clark labeled a "very bad diet," but they had no choice. Game was scarce.

What caused the intestinal crisis is still uncertain, but one prime suspect is the dried salmon the men bought and wolfed down after crossing the Rockies on a steady meat diet. On the one hand, the sudden dietary switch alone may have made them ill. But on the other, some experts think the salmon may have been contaminated with bacteria.

During the illness, some of the men may have wished they would die, but none did. By October 1, Clark could report that even "Capt Lewis is getting much better."

Want more info on this subject? See the book Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, as well as The Lewis and Clark Journals edited by Gary Moulton and The Journals of Lewis and Clark edited and interpreted by Bernard DeVoto.—Roger Di Silvestro

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