Indian Creek Watershed

The city of Ilwaco is looking into expanding ownership of forest near Chinook where it obtains its potable water supply. The center area shown in green is owned by the city. The orange area is owned by the Hawaii public employees pension system and that shaded violet is owned by Longview Timberlands LLC.

It’s been worrying to know Ilwaco’s water supply comes from a reservoir surrounded by a forested watershed subject to being clearcut. Though preferable from a water-quality standpoint to having it be surrounded by oil refineries, or even houses, it isn’t an ideal situation from the standpoint of sedimentation.

The city of Ilwaco is pondering whether and how to add to its forest holdings around its municipal reservoir in the hills north of Chinook. This makes good sense for water quality, and in other ways as well.

Back in a dry summer in the early 1990s, there was a fire in the vicinity of the Indian Creek Reservoir and the editor went up in a Department of Natural Resources helicopter to get a sense of what was going on and the lay of the land. Even more than it may appear when looking up at the hills from U.S. Highway 101, the headwaters area of the Chinook and Bear rivers is lush and convoluted. The first high ground that many ocean storms encounter on their way east, this is country that has been pummeled by bounteous rain since the end of the Ice Age, with an incredible capacity for growing trees and every other kind of vegetation.

Water runs off those hills and valleys into rivers that supported amazing salmon runs in olden times. Despite official and now discredited efforts to kill them off, Bear River’s chum salmon remain a tough and useful part of the Willapa Bay ecosystem, while the Chinook River and its small tributaries on the south side of the divide have been eyed for years as one of the most promising areas for salmon restoration on the undammed portion of the Columbia River.

For the past 30 years, conservation groups have been picking up forested parcels near the Columbia River estuary and Willapa Bay. But it is more appealing to think about local lands moving forward in local hands, as will be the case if Ilwaco succeeds in its community forest aims. By the same token, we’ve encouraged the Chinook Indian Nation over the years to consider acquiring headwater lands in Pacific County. Local knowledge and priorities are likely to win broader buy-in than decisions made by remotely owned corporations and pension trust funds.

Responsible forest ownership has a long horizon. The short harvest cycles preferred by most corporations are contrary to the natural patterns of Pacific Northwest forests, which have life cycles of centuries, not 30 years. A community forest, if well designed, can still accommodate multiple uses including harvest, while also serving the recreational, water-production and open-space needs of coastal residents.

It may not happen in 10 or even 20 years, but our area’s benign climate and the increasing crowds elsewhere on the West Coast promise to begin transitioning forestland into places where people live. Now is the time for Ilwaco and all other local entities to acquire property for the future.

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