Salmon Nation

Whatcom Land Trust restores the land and the legacy

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Eric Carabba and I climbed out of his sturdy Volks­wagen on a little-used county road near Wickersham. Eric explained that this section of bottomland might have once been the easiest route for early settlers to penetrate this valley in eastern Whatcom County. He knows this area well: His home is just an arrow’s flight from here, tucked into a quiet hollow against a hillside. Hardy and intelligent, Eric belongs on this land.

The awesome early journey of visitors to this area was once captured by Pulitzer prize-winning environmental journalist Bill Dietrich.

“One pioneer who crossed a low shoulder of Mt. Baker while traveling north from the Skagit heard an odd primeval grinding as he descended to the silver Nooksack,” Dietrich wrote.  “The sound was mysterious, disturbing, like a rumbling factory in the middle of a wilderness. Reaching the Nooksack’s edge, he discovered the sound was not some human machine, nor snoring monster, but rather that of spawning salmon, hundreds of thousands of them, digging nests in the river gravel. That’s what we’ve lost in less than 150 years,” Dietrich observed, “that astonishing sound of regeneration. Our civilization is cocky and quick, but has yet to prove it can sustain itself.”

That question was resonant in my mind as Eric and I, in a much pared back yet still titanic landscape, struck out into the muck of Ennis Creek, perhaps not terribly far from the spot Dietrich described. The numbers of wild fish here are perilously in decline from their clash and clatter in river gravel a century and a half ago, but the reproductive energy of these creatures is so mighty, their offspring so numerous and their will to live so fierce that if they’re given a chance, any chance at all, they can spring back in tremendous numbers in a handful of seasons. The Whatcom Land Trust aims to give them that chance.

The founders and volunteers of the Land Trust know what it means to spring from scattered numbers to become a powerful force on the landscape. Three decades ago, just 50 people gathered in the basement of the Dutch Mothers Restaurant in Lynden. They listened as a speaker described how a land trust might preserve Whatcom County’s endangered agricultural heritage. The year was 1983, in the midst of the churn that would later produce the state’s growth management laws and—simultaneously, not coincidentally—amid a building boom that was converting ag to commercial centers and residences. This group would form the nucleus of the nonprofit that would grow from those humble beginnings, working with willing landowners and diverse governments to assemble and protect more than 5,000 pristine acres in Whatcom County, including 35 miles or trails and 32 miles of marine and freshwater shoreline.

While the Land Trust’s soul may lie rooted in agriculture, right now the organization’s beating heart is in the restoration of fish.

Eric Carraba is the lands director for the Land Trust, a job that gets him outdoors and into the wilderness often. He brought me out early on a beautiful morning to look at fish.

Ennis Creek is a swampy bit of land just east of the Valley Highway in the glacial shadow of the Twin Sisters. The crazy-quilt creek is restless in its banks, spooling and meandering here and there, spilling over banks before funneling to county ditching and through an unfortunate road culvert. From there the creek spreads free again to form the headwaters of the Samish River, onward again to the mighty Skagit. The broader landscape is a patchwork of clearcuts and standing conifers of varying ages, most of it managed by DNR and private timber interests. Here in this 50-acre speck of wetland, the trees have managed to gain a mossy toehold, aging even enough where some have decayed and fallen. Fish love decayed and fallen timber.

Here in this jumble of trees and rivulets we find them—chum by the score.

Latecomers and perhaps the least loved of the succulent salmonids, the dog salmon is—likely for both these reasons—also the least threatened of native stocks, spawning wild in healthy numbers. Chinook, by contrast, arrive early when stream flows are spotty. Their tasty flesh makes them a favorite of fishers and diners.

“In many ways, chinook are victims of their own particular success,” said Craig Lee, the new executive director of Whatcom Land Trust.

“They’re highly prized, and yet they arrive before the the seasonal rains and heavier stream flows. They’re really pressured on many fronts.”

Earlier, on a rainy September morning, I had a chance to walk with Craig and Eric along the Maple Creek Reach managed by the Land Trust.

Just east of Maple Falls as the north fork of the Nooksack River begins its rugged climb into the high Foothills, the Land Trust manages an old Christmas tree farm they’ve acquired that might become one of their most ambitious projects—a nursery for five nations of salmon.

As we marched through periodic showers, meadows gave way to the creek, which flows quietly in forests bordering the raging North Fork.

There, in the cool overhang of a beaver dam, in a shallow stretch of creek not 50 yards in length, the five nations of salmon spawned together in peace. Chinook, king of salmon, patiently fingered the water as they neared the end of their spawning cycle. They were joined in numbers by pinks, Coho, and bull trout. Peering through the glare with a polarized lens, I watched swarms of fingerlings dart about. Looming large like battlewagons, a couple of surly sockeye occasionally thrashed the water violently, their humped dorsals rising out of the shallows like shark fins, their curved and scowling jaws breaking through the surface.

“Those quick darting motions are actually an important part of their spawning process,” Craig explained. “Their motions scoop out sand and gravel, deepen the channel, creating small pockets for their eggs even when the water levels decline.”

We were joined on that day by Hugh Lewis of the Washington Wild Fish Conservancy and avid Four Corners Flyfishers enthusiast, a fountain of fish lore and fish love, who tells me more about these critters in an hour than I could learn on my own in a year.

Salmon, I’m told, are a mighty kind of “super fish” that can live in both fresh and salt water, and might travel hundreds or even thousands of miles over a lifetime. Salmon are born in fresh water and most live their adult lives in the ocean. Then they make an incredible upstream journey to lay eggs in the same places that they were hatched, which through a miracle beyond comprehension they can find again. Only Kokanee live their whole lives in a freshwater stream or lake.

“I can never get my fill of looking at this,” Hugh marveled. “This is one of those great miracles, these different species of fish in the wild side by side.”

Five nations of fish living in peace in a few hundred cubic yards of icy creek.

“There are some folks in the hatchery program who are convinced what we’re seeing here is impossible,” Craig grinned.

Hugh nodded. “They don’t believe these small streams that feed into the Nooksack are capable of sustaining wild fish in numbers. But here they are.”

The Maple Creek nursery needs a few cribs. Beavers cut the wood for those cribs, and the Land Trust plans to give them a lot of their favorite kind in future years by seeding willows through the riparian area. Beavers are not much loved by farmers, but they were once the great stewards and enablers of the forests of the West, Eric explained as we walked through their world. The destruction of these creatures by hunters and landowners triggered the earliest collapse of salmon stocks, a cascade only worsened by aggressive forestry and farm practices. So one part of the Land Trust mission is to love the important critters unloved by commercial farmers and foresters.

“Their dams store water and calm water, keep floods from scouring out the creek beds,” Eric said as we wandered back through the wet fields. “But beavers build them leaky, so water can get through. In the next heavy rain, the creek level may rise so the salmon we saw might be able to pass through into the next section of creek.”

“We’re in this for the very long horizon,” Craig agreed. “We work with groups like NSEA (Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association), but they are more project-based. They have funding to restore habitat, and when they’ve done that, they’ll move on to the next project. They are a very important contributor to the effort to bring back salmon, but our role is more in long-term stewardship, ensuring that what is brought back can thrive.

“These are truly remarkable creatures that we are fortunate to protect.”

Five weeks later, on a crystal clear November morning in an entirely different watershed a few thousand yards north of the Skagit line, Eric and I watched the tail end of the season’s rush of salmon that return to spawn each fall, the runs of chum and Coho.

Leaving Ennis Creek, Eric and I crossed back into the Nooksack drainage, crossing the Middle Fork of the Nooksack near Acme. To the north, as it rushes under the Saxon Road bridge, “the South Fork becomes a very different kind of river,” Eric told me.

The river widens and slows, meandering across heavily graveled reaches. In the distance is one of the county’s engineered log jams, one of the “least bad” mechanisms to slow channel flows and allow river debris to collect as habitat. In a more sane world, natural systems would do what the county’s jumble of concrete pilings only simulates.

Eric’s real interest was to the southeast. We peered from the Saxon bridge into one of the Land Trust’s proudest new acquisitions, Christie Creek, a magnificent stand of timber near a gorge cut deep by the Nooksack. The property is sufficiently remote that, on this crisp day, we can only admire it from across the river, on the Land Trust’s Port Blakely property, one of the earliest acquisitions of the trust. Just up the road is the Lummi’s proud hatchery, where one day the tribe hopes to restore native stocks of chinook to the wild river. Of the thousands of fish the hatchery releases, however, only a handful return to the wilds. Significant habitat challenges remain, even in the most pristine corners of the Nooksack.

On the beach cobbles a few yards down from us, an angler in waders tries his luck with a reel and a cast into the river’s white churn.

Granting access to these unfenced lands is one of the Land Trust’s undergirding goals, Eric said, helping to define the very concept of “open space” and connecting people to their natural resources. The trust’s policy of openness is not without challenges. Eric pointed to a heap of old appliances dumped on the side of the road near their easement.

An absentee landlord will sometimes lose land and land value through encroachment, he observed, so it is important to walk the fields often.

“In those early days of the land trust, the board were volunteers. They were doing what they could with the resources they had, and they were doing a pretty impressive job of it. Now we’ve moved into the next phase, with an executive director and a staff to walk the lands and make sure they’re being cared for.

“And we want to be good neighbors. We want to be seen by neighbors and to talk to neighbors, learn about their issues and maybe help address them.” Eric said.

He explained that for the longest time, the central mission of the land trust was in acquisition. Period.

“In the early years the effort was in just getting land into the protective ownership of a trust,” he said. Some of those early acquisitions the Land Trust might politely pass on today, but they helped build a portfolio, an assembly of land that can form the nucleus of a larger program.

“In the early years, the mission was ‘to acquire land.’ The mission today is more ‘to acquire land so that—‘ with emphasis on the larger picture of farms and fish,” the pivotal center of Whatcom County’s natural resource legacy.

My old friend Bob Keller, to whom I dedicate this story, recently retired as a board member of Whatcom Land Trust, where he has served since 1994.

“Old-timers and newcomers alike, whatever their politics or economic status, agree almost everyone wants to retain these treasures,” Keller said. One mechanism, he argued, is through the private ownership of a land trust.

I think of that ragtag group of struggling naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts huddled in a Lynden basement, wondering how they might bring Whatcom’s wild lands back from the brink, rising from there to become one of the largest private landowners in the area with a mission to open their lands for benefit of the public and nature. I think of the fierce vitality that made this possible. And I think of the fish.

Whatcom Land Trust is pursuing its volunteer, member and donor drive this month. Read about their annual matching campaign at http://www.whatcomlandtrust.org. On Sat., Dec. 28, Whatcom Land Trust will guide a tour of chum spawning on the North Fork to the delight of eagles. Reserve spaces are limited.

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