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Salmon and forests: fog brothers.

The low foothills of the Olympic Mountains rise out of the river valleys like ridges on a rumpled carpet. In the deep recessions between trees, shades of green-- some close to black--blend with the brighter shades of the light-drenched upper limbs. Tendrils of mist connect the lush forest to the flat, gray sky. These tufts of fog appear as much a part of the forest as of the sky--skeins of fleece tangled on the comb of the forest. At moments like this, you think that the forest is breathing, that its exhalations create the clouds overhead. And in this part of the world, where so much forest is often seen under so much cloud cover, the possibility that forest and sky are somehow related is hard to dismiss.

Northwest Coast Indians had a story about forests and mists--and salmon. According to the story, salmon returned to the rivers under the protective cloak of the Fog Woman. Those mists that gathered in the tips of the trees were the blanket she wore. In the cool light of the fog, the swimmers found their way up the river valleys. Trees, clouds, and salmon formed a community, bound together in myth.

That there are important relationships between the forest ecosystem and salmon populations is not a myth. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon and trees have been the twin totems of resource abundance since before Europeans first settled the region--salmon upon whose backs you could cross the streams; timber that would never run out. Yet in both cases, plenty has dwindled to scarcity. How closely was plenty in both resources related? And how close is the relationship in scarcity?

The harvest of trees and salmon in the Pacific Northwest followed the historic pattern of resource exploitation. In the beginning, the object was to get it while you could, at the lowest cost. That impulse was gradually contained, thanks to policies and practices that emphasized principles of conservation. But even as these conservation measures were put in place, they offered the promise that future resource supplies could be ensured simply with massive production programs. The parallel rise of scientific silviculture and fish-hatchery production assumed that resource productivity was based primarily on resource fecundity, that shortages in habitat could be mitigated by giving Nature a helping hand with seedlings or tingerlings. Neither practice paid much attention to the fundamental complexity of factors that determine productivity in salmon and forests. And neither system could fully provide substitutes for processes essential to the productivity of ecosystems they sought to replace.

Getting at the timber resource required getting onto the land. At first, the trees at water's edge, easiest to reach, were simply dropped and dragged to the water. As logging moved farther inland, streams whose flow was regulated by splash dams conveyed logs to the saltwater. In the river valleys facing the coast or Puget Sound, the land was swiftly overtaken. The low hills yielded fairly easily--systematically stripped of their timber because of the head start that geography provided. Mills and docks, slowcoursing waterways to bear the logs to tidewater, and long but not excessively steep railroad grades all conferred advantage upon those who came early and worked hard.

So easy was this harvest that just after it got started in earnest, it was contained. The Progressive Conservationists, rallying around Gifford Pinchot, saw to the creation of a system of federal forest reserves (now called National Forests) intended to check the headlong destruction of American forests. In 1897, President Grover Cleveland established the 2.1-million-acre Olympic Forest Reserve, closing the land to entry. This reserve, encompassing the mountainous core of the peninsula as well as much of the timbered coastal foothill region, thus came under the custody of a federal government whose mission to conserve natural resources for future generations would ultimately be refined by the creation of numerous conservation agencies with a variety of mandates. In sharp contrast to other green hills of the coastal Northwest, where the idea of federal stewardship arrived too late, major parts of the Olympic Peninsula were spared the axe and steam donkey, later to be managed according to the principles of modern forestry.

Although the gospel of conservation paid lip service to the integral relations among natural resources, the theory was never matched by the practice. Single-resource commodity values dictated forest policy and management practices. Protective measures for other resources and other resource values came only slowly.

Likewise with the salmon. The five species of Pacific salmon have surged up the swift coastal rivers since long before humans kept records. And the earliest records we have speak of abundance beyond belief. Dr. George Suckley, an early naturalist, reported that the salmon "form one of the most striking wonders of the region." The Indians established broad cultural subsistence patterns around the yearly upstream floods of the salmon, and developed a variety of methods for catching the fish, preserving the flesh and skins, and trading their surplus. In most of the early reports of the sea-borne explorers, salmon as well as otter skins were proffered by the natives and appreciated by the white traders. Spaniard Manuel Quimper, visiting the region in 1790, wrote of obtaining individual salmon exceeding 100 pounds.

But as the coastal region bent to the settler, as rivers were choked with splash dams, estuaries clouded with pollution, the mountain foothills bled of their soil by destructive timber practices, and spawning gravel clogged with silt, the natural abundance of the salmon waned. As hydroelectric dams and irrigation diversions checked the timeless routes of the fish's return, that return fell to a trickle. In some rivers, it ceased. Offshore, the mechanization of trolling and the sheer increase in the number of commercial fishermen spelled trouble for the fish. Fewer fish returned to less habitat--a death spiral that imperiled the whole resource.

Countering the trend, at least in theory, was the notion that the decline of salmon because of overharvest and habitat loss could be mitigated by intensive efforts to raise the fish in hatcheries. These marvelously fertile creatures could, in theory, be restored if managers intervened to give them a boost through the spawning process. However, from both a financial and a biological perspective, hatcheries proved more a problem than a panacea. In a climate of dwindling public revenue, hatcheries have been intermittently closed and reopened as public funding waned and surged. Aging hatcheries--complex capital plants in their own right--received the short end of operating and maintenance funding. And even when budget cuts were staved off, agency programs and personnel, not the salmon themselves, seemed to be the endangered resource of preference.

In biological terms, the progressive replacement of many naturally occurring genetic strains of wild salmon by relatively few hatchery-bred strains weakened the overall genetic composition of coastal salmon resources. Hatchery fish fare poorly when introduced into new river systems. In the wild, feeding time is not signaled by the appearance of a human silhouette over the raceway. Hatchery fish "implant" poorly on their adopted rivers-- straying to other rivers upon their return is the rule rather than the exception. Those that do stay to breed introduce irrelevant genes into pristine stocks in which genetic adaptation to local environmental conditions is of premium value for survival.

Furthermore, egg-taking practices common for many years in hatchery management tended to select for early returning fish because hatchery personnel were so eager to obtain enough eggs that they overcollected those fish genetically programmed for early arrival on the spawning beds.

Critics, including author Bruce Brown, charged that wild salmon, reduced by over a century of resource neglect, were now being given the coup de grace by agencies supposedly dedicated to their preservation. Brown's book, Mountain in the Clouds, produced a wave of outcry among anglers, environmentalisis, and biologists, who allied in support of remnant wild stocks of sailnon and forced policy changes with respect to hatchery-driven fisheries.

"The book seems to have helped many people perceive wild salmon as different from hatchery salmon," Brown says.

An event that profoundly shaped the management of the coastal salmon fishery was the 1974 decision of Judge George Boldt in the case of U.S. v Washington .Ruling that rights reserved by Indian tribes in the Stevens treaties had been systematically trampled by the state of Washington for nearly a century, Boldt ruled that tribal fishermen were entitled to half of the harvestable salmon. The immediate fallout of the decision was uproar by non-Indian fishermen who had previously benefitted by the state's historic--and flawed--interpretation.

As the furor gradually subsided among the fishermen themselves, it became apparent that the major lasting consequence of the Boldt decision would be in the area of salmon management and policy. Once the tribes' fishing rights had been affirmed, their responsibilities as resource managers were also affirmed. Shaky at first, the partnership between state, federal, and tribal fisheries agencies grew more stable with time, enabling Indian and nonIndian interests to focus on shared concerns over the health of the salmon resource.

Proponents of the cooperative approach point to the 1982-83 El Nino as a case in which natural factors could have doomed the runs without the united efforts of tribal and state biologists. With two sets of biologists focusing on salmon problems, and two sets of resource managers weighing a alternatives, conservative measures were taken to insure that the naturally reduced runs were not overfished. Many point to that near catastrophe as a turning point in "co-managemcnt" of salmon by tribal and state agencies--a crossroads al which the frustration and anger of the fish wars between the tribes and the state gave way to cooperation for the benefit of the resource.

In '1986, another historic step was taken toward reallocating responsibility in fishery-related issues. This time, however, the focus was a three-way working partnership between the timber industry, Indian tribes, and state fisheries agencies, a pact mediated by a private organization, the Northwest Renewable Resources Center.

The aim of the so-called Timber-Fish-Wildlife agreement was to create a process by which forest-management practices could be tailored to fit specific fisheries- and wildlife-management needs. Blessed and funded by the Washington State legislature, the process brought all sides together and basically reinvented the way forest-management practices were related. The new regulations assure tribes, fisheries agencies, and environmentalists that destructive logging and road-building practices would moderate. Procedural flexibility was built in, so that the timber industry could adhere to fisheries resource-management goals at the same time as it managed timber for the long term.

It remains to be seen just how far TFW's integration of broad natural-resource policies will go in leveling out the grim cycles of either the timber or the salmon resource. Early optimism has been replaced by cynicism as timber issues in the Northwest have been overshadowed by the northern-spotted-owl controversy. Hard-won procedural agreements, tenuously forged in the tender environment of TFW, lost their force and were replaced by legal and political hardball. The schism has deepened considerably as the constructive tone of TFW has been replaced by ideological bear-baiting as the Endangered Species Act squares off against the anti-technical dogma billed as "wise use." And two other elements have been thrown into the mix: the potential listing of many Pacific salmon stocks as threatened or endangered, and the continued plummet of the overall fisheries resource.

If there has been a failure of the political process to embrace the ecosystem approach offered in TFW, there has also been a failure at the scientific level. Managers simply don't know enough about the whole forest and salmon ecosystem to fully understand the reciprocity and interdependency between salmon and forests. What has been learned in the relatively few years that both fisheries and forest scientists have been asking the right questions has been astounding. The mystery of the coho salmon is a good example.

In the early 1980s, fisheries biologists became concerned about the fate of coho salmon stocks that inhabit the heavily logged coastal areas of Oregon and Washington. Wisdom gained from chinook and chum salmon suggested that degradation of spawning habitat was a critical factor limiting the populations of these fish. Hatchery production was increased to compensate for the loss of spawning habitat, and forest-practice regulations were enacted to prevent harm to the precious gravel beds. The hatchery fish, however, failed to check the downward skid of the coho populations--the planted fish were vanishing. Large coho plants were not producing returns.

Then fish biologists made a startling discovery: Wild cohos, which spend one or two years in fresh water before they migrate to sea, spend' their first full winter holed up in beaver ponds, sloughs, small streams, and riparian wetlands along the broad river bottoms. During fall and winter floods, the rivers themselves become torrents, choked with silt and overpowering in their energy. The young cohos--rather than migrating directly to sea or taking their chances in the main stems of the rivers--seek refuge in the clean, quiet waters of abandoned meanders, seep-fed creeks, and tiny tributaries. There they grow rapidly on aquatic insects and other organisms. This burst of growth gives these cohos a distinct advantage for survival at sea when they eventually leave the freshwater system.

These pond and tributary habitats, however, had never been recognized for their contribution to coho productivity. Though measures were in place to protect main-stem habitats from destruction, the beaver ponds and small channels were particularly vulnerable to logging, road building, and culverts, often filling with slash and debris. The phenomenal productivity of these waters startled fisheries biologists--one tiny pond has produced over 2,000 coho smolts each year, as many fish as successfully spawn in the entire river system during many years.

A second major discovery has been the role of large woody debris--logs, rootwads, logjams, and fallen trees-in creating and sustaining salmon habitat. Traditionally, a sound tree left standing or lying was seen as a wasted tree. That view is changing. The importance of large tree stems in the stream environment has been brought to light in recent years, primarily through the biodiversity work of Jerry Franklin, professor of ecosystem management at the University of Washington, and others.

For salmon, large woody debris may be the most important product of the forest. In wet maritime climates that give rise to the magnificent northwestern forests themselves, the cycle of drought and flood is pronounced. Simple watercourses, without structural components like large woody debris, shed water, nutrients, and gravel too quickly. Large logs and rootwads falling into small streams create stairsteps that accumulate gravel and other debris. Such streams are interspersed with sheltering pools and oxygenating cascades. Vast amounts of organic material remain trapped in the stream system, feeding whole food chains of invertebrates and higher predators--including salmon.

Research in southeast Alaska has shown that in different habitat types along one stream, chinook and coho salmon densities varied by 58 and 23 times, respectively, between stream reaches with no woody habitat and those with log jams and downed trees. In addition to providing essential cover and acting as a trap to collect spawning gravel, logs shore up stream banks, anchor unstable slopes, and bear the brunt of erosive bed material unloosed during periods of high flow.

Regrettably, even good intentions have been damaging to many salmon streams. Periodically through the 1960s and '70s, "stream-rehabilitation" campaigns were waged in which large logs were removed from streamcourses, on the assumption that they were detrimental to fish. The full appreciation of the role of big chunks of wood in small streams was lacking, with lethal results. With each freshet, spawning gravel was purged out of the system and a multitude of microhabitats scoured out of existence. Even the role of streamside buffer zones, long considered necessary for maintenance of shade and reduction of siltation, is changing. Standing timber in the riparian zone forms the recruitment system for the logs and rootwads that must enter the stream for the next hundred years if high-quality salmon habitat is to be maintained.

Perhaps the most provocative findings in salmon and forest ecosystem research have revealed not what salmon need from forests but what they bring to them. Work carried out by Washington Department of Natural Resources fish biologist Jeff Cederholm and National Park Service wildlife biologist Doug Houston shows that the nutrient-rich carcasses of spawned-out salmon remain relatively close to the spawning sites. In seven western Olympic streams, most carcasses "planted" by the researchers stayed within 600 meters of where they were placed in the stream. The implications are profound.

Until recently scientists believed that salmon carcasses were flushed quickly out of the stream system and that nutrients--primarily nitrogen and phosphorus-returned to the ocean. The salmoncarcass research showed that, in fact, salmon-borne nutrients enter the forest ecosystem quickly through decomposition and the scavenging of some 22 species of mammals and birds. Salmon, in effect, are swimming fertilizer sacks that return to the land some of the nutrients that in the rainsoaked Northwest are leached away to the sea.

Given current reduced population levels, salmon contribute far less than in the past--some historical records show that even relatively recently, coastal cohos were more abundant than they are today by a factor of 10. And although nutrient inputs to forested riparian zones from litterfall far exceed the potential of that from salmon, deciduous leaves and salmon carcasses occur at about the same time, leading the researchers to speculate on the role salmon may play in hastening litter decomposition. This research has forced managers to confront the fact that as the long-term sustainability of current timber-management systems is being questioned, we must ask what harm we have done to forest productivity by nearly eliminating a source of nutrients that until even recent times could have been very significant.

This research suggests that ecosystem links between salmon and forests may be more reciprocal than we have been trained to think. Indeed, the pattern presented in much current salmon and forest ecosystem research is that wherever we look in this maze of interactions, new and more subtle interactions appear.

Jan Henderson, a Forest Service ecologist who has worked extensively on the Olympic forests, sees a profound challenge for scientists. "The needs of the public and of the policy makers have run ahead of science; we are trying to follow the train and hoping we can catch up. Right now you can find as many answers as you can find scientists."

Understanding landscape-level ecosystems requires new tools, just as managing salmon and timber together will require new tools. These will include the practical and theoretical tools of a new science as well as those of a new public policy. The bitter irony is that the task appears far more complex than our present institutions of consensus, management, or even scientific knowledge are equipped to handle.

The challenge of forest and salmon ecosystem management requires no less than major shifts of fundamental forestry and fisheries ideas for policymakers, economists, scientists, technicians, timber and pulp producers, and the public. Resources historically seen and valued as separate and distinct must now be seen together. Economic and ecological costs borne upon one in favor of the other must now be considered in a calculus that considers the whole resource complex. In addition, those costs long considered outside the equation-cumulative effects in the watershed, impacts to aesthetic and recreation values and opportunities foregone for future generations--must be brought in from the cold and laid on the table.

If the bitter legacy of conflict in Pacific Northwest forests has anything to teach, it is how much everyone can lose. Yet there is opportunity to move beyond rhetoric and exhortation. Vast blocks of land have been manipulated, some with reckless abandon and some with true stewardship. The land still sits there, although its resources are diminished.

Forest scientists like Henderson admit that underlying processes that affect salmon and forest productivity are largely unknown. But attitudes among managers about ecosystem management are changing. "Ten years ago, we were talking about ecosystem management and people were rolling their eyes. Now they're telling it back to us," he says.

Already, resource-management reformers are calling for strategies that treat the system experimentally and policies that adapt quickly to changes in the landscape. That will require integrating forest and fisheries sciences.

In the few years that they have been working together, forest and fisheries professionals have been introduced to each others' science, management practices, and mistakes. Gradually, they are introducing each other to solutions. Although the results of the Timber-FishWildlife process remain ambiguous, it is clear that only policy and management interventions of that scale will be successful. And they will succeed only if they recognize the fundamental premise that the real resource is comprised of one dazzlingly interconnected ecosys - The most destructive myth of forestry and fisheries management has been that forests and salmon are separable and can be valued and manipulated independently. Perhaps it is not yet appropriate to invoke a Fog Woman or other symbolic character who can represent the vision of the whole salmon and forest ecosystem. But it is appropriate to look harder to find the ways in which fish and forests are truly connected.

Robert Steelquist is an environmental planner and author of eights books on natural history and environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest.
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Title Annotation:Watershed Wars; exploitation of trees and salmon in the Pacific Northwest
Author:Steelquist, Robert
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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