Cooperation Means Better Habitat For Salmon

A streamside forest will become more salmon-friendly because of work by the Nisqually Indian Tribe and Tacoma Public Utilities.

The municipal utility owns a 90-acre stretch of streamside forest along the Nisqually River. Working with the tribe’s salmon habitat restoration crew, the partners are planting conifers in the now mostly deciduous (leaf-bearing trees) forest.

“There is a slow, natural evolution of forests from deciduous trees like alders to more conifers,” said David Troutt, the tribe’s natural resources director. “We’re helping speed up that process.”

Conifers like Douglas fir and Western red cedar are hardier than deciduous trees and therefore form more durable logjams. Trees wash into the river naturally and preferably form logjams. The logjams create important habitat like deep pools where salmon rest and feed.

“While conifers stay inside a logjam for hundreds of years, deciduous trees rot away much quicker,” Troutt said. “In places where we’ve gone in and built logjams, we’ve seen larger populations of juvenile salmon.”

The city-owned forest is hard to access. The planting crew carried young trees for miles, sometimes scaling down bluffs. The tribe’s full-time planting crew has been a driving force behind habitat restoration projects in the Nisqually for more than a decade. They have planted and maintained more than 500 acres of forest.

The Tacoma property makes up the majority of the shoreline in an important stretch of the Nisqually near the mouth of the Mashel River, a vital chinook tributary. Nisqually chinook are part of a Puget Sound-wide population that are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

This multi-year planting project is the latest example of a decades-long relationship between the tribe and the utility. In the late 1980s, the tribe and the utility reached a settlement after years of litigation over the impact the utility’s dams had on salmon. The best example of this collaboration is the tribe’s Clear Creek Hatchery, which is funded as part of the settlement.

“The future of the Nisqually River includes both Tacoma and the Nisqually Tribe,” said Farron McCloud, Nisqually tribal chair. “These projects are a reflection of years of trust and a good working relationship.”

Sam Stepetin, Rene Bracero and Kyle Kautz, Nisqually natural resources staff, discuss where to begin planting along the Nisqually River. Photo: E. O’Connell