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HABITAT LOST & FOUND
Getting Communities Involved in Salmon Recovery
by Ramon Vanden Brulle
Several Septembers back, I stood in a boat watching copper-flanked chinook cavort and charge across the surface of a still pool on the Skykomish River. The scene might have seemed more hopeful had the mood not been severely compromised by the less optimistic sight just upstream. A track-hoe busily placed large rip-rap boulders against the steep river-bank, presumably to protect the new home perched there. The heavy tractor, parked directly in the river channel, belched diesel exhaust and sent a plume of sediment downstream over a broad bar of spawning gravel.
It seemed incredible that someone could get a permit for this type of work during salmon-spawning season, impossible that the permit would allow heavy equipment in the river channel. I knew I was watching the law being broken. It made me sick, but I had no idea what to do about it, or even where to start. For the average citizen, trying to report violations of environmental laws can be so time consuming, frustrating, and too-often unproductive, that many learn their lesson and never try again. This pattern is so consistent that it is sometimes hard to believe the lesson isnít intentional.
Fortunately, there is a way for individuals and community organizations to
get meaningfully involved in environmental protection and salmon recovery.
Washington Troutís Habitat Lost & Found program helps communities identify
salmon bearing streams and respond to permit and law violations that threaten
Finding "Lost" Habitat
Habitat Lost & Found is based on three fundamental salmon-recovery strategies, correctly identifying salmon habitats, repairing man-made barriers that block those habitats, and protecting those habitats by ensuring the enforcement of existing environmental regulations.
In Washington, all streams are classified under five "types."
Types one through three are fish-bearing. Type-four and -five streams are non
fish-bearing. Accurate stream typing is essential to protecting fish and their
habitats. Riparian buffer zones required on type-two streams may be smaller or
only voluntary on type-three or type-four streams, or not required at all on
type-five or un-typed streams.
Unfortunately, Washingtonís original stream inventory underestimated the actual miles of fish-bearing streams by almost 50% statewide. Thousands of important salmon and trout streams were incorrectly classified as non fish-bearing, and did not receive the protections they needed. Many were damaged or lost. Washington Trout has surveyed over 4500 streams throughout the state, correcting their mis-classification and qualifying them for the protections they need.
Under Habitat Lost & Found, WT crews can respond to requests from landowners and community organizations to correct the misidentification of fish-bearing streams.
In 1997, the State recognized the problem and revised the criteria for
identifying fish-bearing streams, simultaneously upgrading protections for
streams that had been identified as non fish-bearing. However, the ruling
applied only to forestlands. Most local jurisdictions that regulate other
land-use practices Ė such as development or road building Ė still rely on old,
often inaccurate water-typing maps.
Across Washington, man-made barriers block wild salmon and trout from thousands of miles of otherwise functioning habitat. Road culverts, irrigation gates, water diversions, bulkheads, and small dams can all block fish passage. Repairing fish-passage barriers can recover miles of otherwise productive habitat at relatively low cost. Washington Trout has assessed and repaired barriers throughout western Washington, granting fish access to miles of formerly blocked habitat.
New Problems, Time-Sensitive Threats
Habitat Lost & Found was originally very successful in part because it responded to the impacts of a single land-use practice, forestry, and because it dealt with only one or two regulatory jurisdictions. As the program moved into areas impacted by multiple land-use practices, overseen by overlapping and sometimes conflicting jurisdictions, Washington Trout identified some new problems.
Many salmon-bearing streams are vulnerable to time-sensitive threats from residential and commercial development, particularly in the Puget Sound Basin. Last year, we expanded Habitat Lost & Found to respond to community requests for emergency surveys on streams facing impending damage from development or other land/water-use practices.
Communities around Puget Sound are seeing more and more signs going up announcing some pending land-use action, a ten-house subdivision, a shopping center, a new shoreline bulkhead. Many projects that could damage local streams or wetlands are approved because the stream is incorrectly classified as "non fish-bearing." Under Habitat Lost & Found Washington Trout can respond to a community request to survey the stream. If we determine the stream is fish-bearing, we submit the information to the relevant agency to modify the permit, in some cases stopping the project. Under the expanded program, Washington Trout has responded to several such emergency requests, in almost every instance upgrading the threatened stream, affecting the land-use practice, and protecting important wild-fish habitats.
Last summer, Washington Trout responded to community requests to survey all the streams on Vashon Island in central Puget Sound (see WT Report, summer 2000). The Vashon Island Audubon Society raised $1600 to partially match Habitat Lost & Found funding to carry out the surveys. The community wanted to ensure that the islandís wild-fish habitats receive appropriate legal protection.
Vashon Island is drained by typically small, low gradient streams that provide habitat for coho and other salmon species, and sea-run cutthroat trout. Puget Sound coho are a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and sea-run cutthroat populations in Puget Sound have severely declined. Most Vashon Island streams were classified as non fish-bearing, only a handful classified as type-three or above, many unclassified or not identified on maps at all.
Washington Trout surveyed 74 streams on Vashon Island, upgrading 37 stream reaches from non fish-bearing to fish-bearing. During the course of the surveys, crews also recorded data on sediment sources, fish-passage barriers, water diversions, and other in-stream features. The upgraded stream reaches will receive protection under the King County Sensitive Areas Ordinance, including 50- to 100-foot stream buffers.
Vashon Islandís native fish will benefit from the foresight and commitment
of the community. An accurate inventory of the Islandís fish-bearing streams
will help planning entities evaluate the health of the Islandís streams,
identify problems, prioritize restoration efforts, and make efficient and
responsible planning decisions that will determine the pace and direction of
land use on the Island.
Accurately identifying fish-bearing streams is critical to preserving them, but it will not be effective if the laws protecting those habitats are not followed or enforced. One of the most insidious threats to wild-salmon habitats in Washington is the inconsistent and often indifferent enforcement of environmental regulations. Washington Trout regularly receives community reports of environmental-code violations, and of how hard it can be to motivate agency action.
Many individuals and community groups lack the resources to track down appropriate agencies and motivate enforcement action. Most people donít know all the laws and may not always recognize a violation (most wonít be as obvious as a tractor in a river). Even when someone suspects something is wrong, they may not know what. Is it a violation of the Clean Water Act, the Hydraulic Code, a Sensitive Areas Ordinance, the ESA? Should they call the Department of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, King County, the Feds? What should they do if they start running into dead-ends or what can seem like the run-around? Habitat Lost & Found creates a lever for communities and individuals looking for action.
Washington Trout has the expertise, the time, and the funding to respond to reports of violations, evaluate sites, and notify the proper agencies. We know the laws, and we know whoís responsible for enforcing them. More importantly, Washington Trout has developed respectful if sometimes adversarial relationships with all of the regional resource agencies. They know that we have the experience to evaluate land-use violations and the credibility to solicit timely and effective enforcement. They also well know that we will not give up or be brushed off; if they donít take action, they will hear from us again until they do.
Washington Trout can respond to almost all credible reports of possible legal violations, large or small, from hydroelectric practices to simple permit violations. Requests for stream surveys are evaluated and prioritized according to criteria including the imminence or scope of the threat, the potential importance of the stream or wetland, and to a lesser extent the ability of the applicants to provide matching funds. Survey costs range from a few hundred dollars for a single small stream-reach, to many thousands of dollars for a large-scale project like Vashon Island. Depending on other criteria, matching requirements can range from zero to a hundred percent. To learn more about Habitat Lost & Found, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 425/788-1167. The Habitat Lost & Found program is currently being funded by the General Service, Horizons, and Trout and Salmon Foundations
Washington Troutís Habitat Lost & Found program creates an opportunity for communities to get effectively involved in protecting local salmon streams that face impending damage, even though they qualify for existing protections. The simple process of qualifying a stream for the legal protections it deserves, and making sure those protections are enforced, can be the quickest, most cost-effective way to save it. Becoming the "eyes and ears" of a grassroots environmental organization like Washington Trout can help empower community groups to become meaningfully involved in preserving our wild-fish resources.