Saving Salmon in the Skookumchuck

How private landowners are key partners to restore river habitat in the Chehalis Basin

A new regional plan in the Chehalis Basin is demonstrating the power of teamwork. Thanks to the partnership of private landowners, land trusts, conservation districts, and state agencies, over 2,600 feet of shoreline along the Skookumchuck River will be restored and over 74 acres of land will be protected to provide critical habitat for salmon and other aquatic species.

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Aerial view of Skookumchuck River in southwest Washington.

The Chehalis Basin: A vital watershed for people, fish, and wildlife

As the state’s second-largest watershed, the Chehalis Basin in southwest Washington sustains communities, economies, and some of the most important salmon runs in Washington. It is also home to the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, and the Quinault Indian Nation.

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In the Chehalis Basin, nearly 3,400 miles of perennial streams and rivers provide critical habitat to salmon, other native fish species, and Washington’s largest diversity of amphibians, including the federally endangered Oregon spotted frog. And, for generations, people have relied on the Basin’s fertile land for agriculture and timber harvest.

However, a changing climate is bringing extremes to the Chehalis Basin. In the last 50 years, there have been 14 federally declared disasters. This, combined with human development and land use, have added up to significant habitat loss and degradation over the past several decades.

The Chehalis Basin Strategy is bringing people together across the Basin to stop and reverse the decline of salmon and other aquatic species, and protect communities and landscapes from the predicted increase of flooding disasters.

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A devastating flood of the Chehalis River in 2007 closed Interstate 5 for several days and caused millions of dollars in damage in the Chehalis Basin.

Protecting and restoring habitat before it’s too late

Salmon and other aquatic species have declined dramatically and, without action, face a dire future in the Chehalis Basin. Without bold steps across the Basin to rebuild rivers and streams with the forest and floodplains, scientists estimate we could lose Chehalis River spring Chinook salmon entirely in 60 years. We could also lose a significant percent of the economically-vital steelhead runs in that same period.

“The Chehalis Basin is one of the state’s only major river systems with no salmon species listed as threatened or endangered,” said Emelie McKain, the basin’s aquatic restoration plan manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We want to keep it that way by restoring and protecting their habitat.”

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Juvenile Chinook salmon, Oregon spotted frog, and Van Dyke’s salamander are all aquatic species that live in the Chehalis Basin.

In response to this challenge, the science-based Aquatic Species Restoration Plan was designed to protect aquatic species and restore their habitats — now and in the face of climate change. The Aquatic Species Restoration Plan is a key component of the Chehalis Basin Strategy and reflects diverse interests and needs across the Basin.

The plan will solve multiple challenges with efficient investments in land protection, restoration, and community planning. Taken together, the efforts of local governments, landowners, tribes, and conservation groups add up to more than anyone could do alone.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is sponsoring five river restoration projects as part of the Aquatic Species Restoration Plan. These projects are taking place on the Skookumchuck, Wynoochee, Satsop, and Newaukum rivers, and on Stillman Creek, a tributary to the South Fork Chehalis River. Funding is provided by the Washington State Legislature through the Department of Ecology’s Office of Chehalis Basin.

In addition to these five projects, WDFW and the Recreation and Conservation Office are working closely with local organizations, project sponsors, and community members to implement restoration projects that will improve habitat and water quality, generate jobs, and protect against flood damage across the Basin.

Working together to restore habitat in the Skookumchuck

The Skookumchuck River Restoration Project is the first WDFW-sponsored project to start construction and is expected to be completed in 2021.

Work includes:

  • Installing native trees and shrubs
  • Removing invasive species such as blackberry and knotweed
  • Constructing engineered log jams and placing large wood along riverbanks
  • Reconnecting floodplain and off-channel habitats
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The Skookumchuck River Restoration Project includes constructing log jams, placing large wood along river banks, and reconnecting off-channel habitats to benefit salmon and other aquatic species. Photos from September 2020.

Turning a landowner’s vision into reality

The Aquatic Species Restoration Plan provides opportunities for willing property owners and communities to engage in restoring and protecting the lands that power our economy. For the Skookumchuck River Restoration Project, the department values the partnership we’ve built with Geoff and Lorna Mueller (private landowners), the Thurston Conservation District, and Capitol Land Trust.

The Muellers had a vison for their property — They wanted to protect their land for fish and wildlife and allow for natural processes to be restored. As a first step, the Muellers placed a conservation easement on their land with Capitol Land Trust, which permanently limits uses of the land to protect its conservation values. That means their 74-acre property will never be subdivided or further developed and can continue to support limited agricultural activities such as grazing.

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Part of the 74-acre property that will be permanently protected from development.

Now, WDFW and the Thurston Conservation District are working with the Muellers to improve their 2,600 feet stretch of the Skookumchuck River.

“It is very rewarding to have a project that takes a landowner’s vision for their property and turns it into reality,” said Celina Abercrombie, Chehalis Basin Strategy Manager for WDFW. “This is truly a remarkable opportunity and something worth celebrating.”

This type of collaboration is the foundation of the Aquatic Species Restoration Plan. This work could not be done without the voluntary participation of landowners throughout the Chehalis Basin watershed.

How to get involved

Farmers and landowners play an important stewardship role in the Basin. Their leadership is urgently needed to support healthy fish populations and the long-term prosperity of working lands.

If you are a landowner interested in learning more about restoration project opportunities in your area, please contact the Conservation District coordinator for your county.

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Landowners and farmers are key partners to restore habitat for aquatic species in the Chehalis Basin.

Written by

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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