Local Watershed Councils Work to Restore Salmon to the North Coast While Preserving Local Economy

While Oregon may be nick-named ‘the Beaver State,’ one of the best-know icons of our state’s wildlife heritage is the anadromous (ocean-going) salmon. Today, the Oregon Coast’s salmon numbers are roughly seven percent of what they once were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This decline is the result of many decades of human activities on the land and in the ocean as well as globally changing conditions for these important fish. Urbanization, fishing, logging, farming, and dam operations are examples of activities that have altered salmon populations by changing their habitat, reducing fish numbers, or affecting water quality. Salmon population declines have caused the majority of Oregon’s salmon species to be protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

salmonids_for_web.jpgIn 1997, a diverse group of stakeholders from all sectors, the Oregon Legislature, and then-Governor John Kitzhaber established the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. The Oregon Plan was formed because Oregonians believed that the state should devise its own home-grown response to salmon declines rather than wait for federal instruction and oversight. The plan created a relatively small state agency called the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) with a mandate to provide grants to locally-run, volunteer watershed restoration efforts. These OWEB grants come from a combination of Oregon Lottery and salmon license plate proceeds. According to OWEB, every dollar the state invests in watershed projects is usually matched by at least $1.50 of private, federal, and local government funds.

One of the unique features of the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds is that its implementation is not in the hands of a large state bureaucracy, but rests instead with local groups called watershed councils. Much of the Oregon Plan work is carried out by these councils. Watershed councils are locally organized, voluntary, non-regulatory groups established to improve the condition of watersheds in their area. The council provides local people a voice that can significantly influence watershed management decisions. Watershed councils can also help new residents understand and get involved in natural resources and land management issues in their area.

The formation of a watershed council is a local government decision. The councils work within their watersheds and with multiple stakeholders to address watershed health in a holistic manner. A typical council is a forum that brings local, state, and federal land management agencies together with local property owners and private land managers. Most watershed councils have a staff of one or more employees that serve to coordinate its efforts.

Watershed councils work with private landowners and a host of other partners to do voluntary projects that improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat while maintaining the productivity of the land. Planting streamside trees and shrubs, reducing erosion and runoff, installing streamside fencing, replacing fish-blocking culverts, removing invasive vegetation, and restoring wetlands are just a few examples of projects that private landowners undertake with the help of watershed councils. Tillamook County hosts the Upper Nehalem, Lower Nehalem, Tillamook Bay, and Nestucca/Neskowin watershed councils.

Formed in 1998, the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council is the largest of these, working within drainages of the five rivers that enter the Tillamook Bay. Council members are the heart and soul of the organization. They provide vision for on-the-ground projects and outreach activities and take a hands-on interest in the organization by volunteering their time and effort on projects. Members are leaders in the community and are involved in other civic organizations. Main interest groups that are present in the watershed and are represented on the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council include Oregon Department of Forestry, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership, Tillamook County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Tillamook County Creamery Association (representing the dairy industry), the oyster industry, charter fishing, small municipalities, small business, Tillamook County, Central Coast Land Conservancy, as well as local residents and landowners representing the five rivers of the Tillamook Bay Watershed.

Recent years have witnessed reductions in returning coho and Chinook on the Oregon Coast. While unfavorable ocean conditions may have contributed to the plunge in populations, they also highlight the continued need for habitat restoration in the North Coast watersheds where salmon breed and live for a significant period of their lives. Along with previous or on-going work in the Miami, Wilson, Trask and Kilchis watersheds, the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council is developing a restoration plan for the Tillamook River basin. Potential salmon habitat improvement projects might include riparian plantings for shade or culvert upgrades for passage.

Before getting started, however, the council will need to understand more about what limits salmon survival in the basin. The council and its partners will examine existing scientific data gathered over the past few years, as well as completing their own study of the Tillamook and its major tributaries (Fawcett, Munson, Mills, Bewley, Sutton, Joe, Beaver, Esther, Tomlinson, Simmons, and Killam creeks). The information gathered by the council will help it to suggest the best voluntary activities that may maintain or restore salmon habitat while supporting the values of landowners in the watershed.

The success of this project is largely dependent on the support of landowners within the Tillamook River basin. The council will collect data during May and June and will need many of the landowners along the Tillamook or its major tributaries to allow passage through their section of stream. The council and its partners (which include OSU Extension Service – Tillamook County) will be contacting landowners by phone or in person. If Tillamook River basin landowners have an interest in pursuing restoration work on their property, this project is an excellent opportunity to do so. For more information or to get involved with the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council, you can contact the council director, Denise Lofman at (503) 322-0002.

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