Members of an 1890 expedition, financed by a Seattle newspaper, described the banks of the Upper Quinault River as “so dense with underbrush as to be almost impenetrable.”
Logs jammed the rivers, they wrote. Dense tree canopies shaded and cooled streams. Salmon and trout thrived, along with hundreds of species of plants and animals.
Over the next century, the landscape changed. Logging widened the river valley and the stream now meanders erratically. Storm runoff has led to prolonged periods of turbidity in fish spawning areas. Leachate from residential septic systems has contributed to degraded water quality.
The impacts have been most felt by the Quinault River blueback salmon, described by the non-profit Wild Salmon Center as one of seven genetically distinct populations of sockeye salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
Blueback spawning habitat decreased from 55 miles to fewer than 3 miles by 2008, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The annual average return of spawning bluebacks has dropped accordingly. The average annual run in the early 1900s was 500,000 – the number peaked at 1.1 million in 1940 – but has dropped to an average of 39,000 today, according to Larry Gilbertson, senior scientist with the Quinault Nation Department of Fisheries. The allowable harvest has dropped from 40-50 percent to 15-20 percent of the run.
Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp believes it’s not too late to turn things around for the beleaguered blueback.
Sharp is seeking investment by the state and federal governments in restoration of the Upper Quinault River – an investment she said will create sustainable jobs and improve habitat for the blueback and other species that make the river valley their home.
In an e-mailed letter addressed June 3, Sharp asked Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers to support an allocation of $2.8 million in the Senate Capital Budget for continued restoration work on the Upper Quinault River watershed. The funding would be used to install engineered logjams over a five-mile stretch of the river; and for invasive species control, in-stream and off-channel habitat enhancement, and replanting native trees to aid forest regeneration.
Among other things, logjams are designed to mimic old-growth trees to create and protect river floodplain and side-channel salmon habitat, and foster the development of mature, self-sustaining conifer floodplain forests.
“It is a very reasonable request which will benefit the state and its citizens, economically and environmentally, many times over,” Sharp said. “Given the unstable nature of the state budget process, we want to impress the importance of this project on the governor and legislators. This is one they cannot leave behind.”
On April 24, Sharp testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, asking that Congress “honor the obligations documented in the agreements between our Nations” in restoring salmon habitat. She’s asked Congress for an investment of $5.79 million over a period of five years for Upper Quinault River restoration.
According to Sharp’s testimony, the federal investment would be used to install up to 140 engineered logjams, purchase logs and pilings for use in the logjams, and complete approximately 537 acres of forest restoration planting.
Quinault, Washington state and the U.S. are co-managers of salmon and other marine resources, as established by the 1855 Treaty of Olympia and the 1974 decision in U.S. vs. Washington, also known as the Boldt decision. The projects covered by the state and federal budget requests are part of the Quinault Nation's Upper Quinault River Salmon Habitat Restoration plan.
Since 2000, the Quinault Nation has invested more than $5 million on restoration of blueback populations and habitat. In 2002, Quinault hired the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to evaluate environmental changes in the Upper Quinault River valley and potential causes for the declines in blueback salmon population. The Bureau determined “the upper Quinault River and its salmon habitats will not heal on their own. Restorative intervention is required.” Without that intervention, the blueback is at risk of extinction.
In the ensuing years, Quinault built a coalition of government and non-profit supporters of Quinault River habitat restoration, and completed several logjam installations and forest planting projects. In July 2011, Quinault completed an assessment of the environmental impacts of its salmon habitat restoration plan. In April, Quinault closed Lake Quinault to non-tribal fishing and boating until further notice because of poaching and pollution concerns, and asked Grays Harbor County officials to inspect septic systems of non-tribal homes along the north shore.
The result thus far: “We have had small local effects, particularly in those areas where we’ve put in structures, such as log jams,” Gilbertson said. “But in the overall watershed, we’ve only just begun.”
Sharp said the habitat restoration plan is endorsed by federal and state agencies, among them the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Olympic National Park, and the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office. Quinault has also received support “in principle” from more than 27 private landowners, Sharp said.
Besides restoring habitat and salmon populations, Sharp — who’s also a lawyer and president of Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians — said the habitat restoration work will have far-reaching economic impacts. It will create approximately 110 jobs – fisheries biologists, GIS analysts, data entry and field technicians, engineers, equipment operators, foresters, laborers, photographers, truck drivers. The economic impacts will trickle down to food services, lodging, retail and tourism sectors, she said.
“This proposal is important to the coastal region in many respects,” Sharp said. “The investment will be highly job-intensive in a region in desperate need of employment opportunities, and those jobs will be sustainable and environmentally friendly. So much is at stake here: Dozens of jobs. Economic stability. Generations of critically important blueback runs.”
Gilbertson said restoration of the Upper Quinault River is “attainable.”
“When you compare the Quinault watershed to others, all the pieces are still there,” he said, referring to lack of development in the upper river watershed. “The question is whether momentum can be built and a predictable revenue stream established. The science is there.”