Cowlitz biologist discusses Pacific County salmon project

This beaver dam is habitat in the vicinity of a salmon restoration project in southeastern Pacific County's Grays River watershed.

LONG BEACH — Rudy Salakory, a biologist and Aquatic Habitat Program manager for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, was interviewed last week about the tribe’s plans to restore about 3,800 feet of the lower South Fork Grays River and Blaney Creek in the southeastern corner of Pacific County.

Q: What is the Cowlitz philosophy on salmon restoration? The tribe seems somewhat unlikely to benefit in a direct way from work in the Grays watershed, so is it a matter of desiring a return to more historical conditions in the region as a whole? Or would healthier runs on the Grays allow more catch upstream from a regulatory standpoint?

A: The core mission of the Cowlitz Tribe’s Natural Resources Department is to protect, conserve, restore and promote culturally relevant species and landscapes integral to the unique identity of the Cowlitz People. Restoring the ecological processes that salmon depend on is, along with protecting intact or functioning habitat, our main goal.

The Grays watershed is within the Cowlitz Tribe’s area of interest. Tribal members and other residents of the region benefit directly from projects such as this one. This project is part of an overall strategy that will result in healthy, harvestable populations of salmon and steelhead for all interest groups — we do not select habitat restoration projects strictly on their sole benefit to tribe members, but to regional salmon recovery goals in general. This is why we have and aim to continue partnering with other tribes, private companies, local, state, and federal agencies to implement projects from the Gorge to the coast to the headwaters of the Cowlitz and Lewis Rivers. To the degree possible, we work toward restoring natural habitat forming processes so that rivers can sustain healthy populations of fish long after the visible traces of our projects have vanished.

Q: I haven’t been to the project area, but looks like kind of a straightaway judging from the photos. I take it that it must have been cleared out at some point in the past, and that restoration will entail creating more pools, shade, vegetation? How did the project come to your attention?

A: Land use changes over the last 200 years have had impacts on the landscape, including the absence of large woody structures and long-lasting islands of vegetation that provide stability and complexity to the floodplain.

This stretch of the Grays River is a high priority reach within the regional habitat strategy for its production potential for winter steelhead, a first food of the Cowlitz People and a popular sportfish for local anglers. While the current alignment appears straight, the project reach is extremely dynamic, shifting rapidly from valley wall to valley wall during modest floods. This is symptomatic of a legacy of wood removal, logging, and log drives.

Without intervention, the floodplain forest is unable to naturally establish and mature, instead being continually reset by floods. Our project will provide hard points to allow forested islands to establish, which in turn will decrease channel widths, increase pool depths, and provide more margin habitat for rearing juvenile fish. Over time, the forested islands and floodplain forest will grow to an age where large trees will once again hold together banks, periodically fall into the river, and form their own log jams and islands. Our project is the first step in allowing the river to restore itself — we’re giving it building blocks for success, and allowing natural processes to once again create habitat as they have since time immemorial.

The Grays River has a history of extremely high sediment loads and related flooding to lowland property owners. This project will attenuate sediment transport through the reach, storing excess sediment higher in the basin and keeping it out of the lower river. While it is a relatively short project reach, it will also slow flood flows and store more water in the floodplain during summer months, beginning to address flashy flows. To fully address the flooding and sediment issues in the Grays River would require a much greater, extensive effort, but we see good potential for this location.

Q: Are tribal members actually involved on the ground in a case like this, or is tribal involvement more a matter of hosting the grant and overseeing the work?

A: The amount of time and focus that at project like this requires usually 4-6 years from identification to close-out; this is not just a pass-through to contractors or consultants. Tribal staff, as well as tribal leadership are involved in the administration and project management components of the project. Many of those involved are tribal members as well. The Cowlitz Tribe uses completed grant-funded restoration projects as field education opportunities for Tribal youth and on-the-job training for tribal member seasonal employees and interns.

For construction and engineering the tribe seeks to work with qualified and experienced outfits to implement these projects. We strive to employ local firms and source our materials from as close to the project area as feasible.

Q: Cowlitz actions in areas more traditionally associated with Chinook have raised some eyebrows among Chinook leadership. Have you been aware of this? Has there been an effort involve them in some way or smooth things a bit?

A: The Cowlitz Tribe is interested in restoring ecosystem processes and species important to not only the Cowlitz People, but to all of the Tribes within the Columbia River Basin. Salmon, deer, elk and other species, too numerous to mention here are in danger. Benefiting those species and landscapes benefit our neighbors, both in the tribal sense and in the greater community sense. We have and continue several partnering relationships with other tribes in the region on numerous topics associated with restoration and preservation of culturally important first foods. We would welcome the opportunity to continue to work with neighbor tribes on developing and implementing projects which benefit the greater community.

Q: How has it been to work with landowner Rayonier?

A: Rayonier has been a productive, collaborative partner on several salmon recovery projects in recent years. The company has demonstrated interest in going above and beyond legal requirements that protect water quality in the Grays River, and has taken a long-range perspective on land management in their Fossil Creek/Grays River forest. Rayonier staff has proactively approached Tribe staff with potential restoration projects that do not directly benefit timber operations, which is unique among private industrial timber companies in the region.

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