Nisqually Tribe honored for partnership to boost habitat

The Nisqually Tribe and partners earned an honor from the federal Environment Protection Agency for a project to restore and protect the Nisqually River’s largest tributary for generations to come.

The project’s aim is to acquire property to restore the Mashel River’s water quality and quantity, protect surrounding shoreline and timberlands, and benefit steelhead and chinook salmon in the federally designated critical habitat.

“I was always taught by mother and father the importance of water,” Nisqually Tribe Chairman Willie Frank III said. “We have to do whatever we can to protect our watershed and we can’t do it alone. Projects like these where we are working with state, federal and local nonprofits partners show what can be done when we work together.”

So far, the project has acquired about 4,000 acres managed by the Nisqually Community Forest. Several partners team up to manage its natural resources. 

While the project is ongoing, in January the EPA recognized its accomplishments with an award to the tribe and partners including the Nisqually River Council, Nisqually Community Forest and Nisqually Land Trust. The groups coordinate with the state Department of Ecology to buy and manage properties. 

Each state submitted only one project for consideration for the George F. Ames Performance and Innovation in the State Revolving Fund Creating Environmental Success (PISCES) Award. Only five projects nationwide were selected for Exceptional status, including Nisqually’s project, the designated submission for all of Washington state. 

“This is a fascinating project. We hope we can share this across the country as a model and see it replicated elsewhere in the country,” said Andrew Sawyers, EPA director of the Office of Wastewater Management, which oversees the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) that helped fund this project.

An EPA model showed that short 40-year rotations of timber harvest result in reduced water available for streamflow during critical summer rearing for salmon. This negatively affects habitat due to high rates of water evaporation from trees and soils in younger forests and less woody debris and duff-layer material to hold water in the drier months.

“As development in the Nisqually River watershed has added more wells that are not counted against minimum flows, we have had to think outside the box about ways to protect it and be able to hand it off in good health to our kids and grandkids,” said Nisqually Tribe natural resources director David Troutt.

Chris Ellings, Nisqually salmon recovery program manager, said acquired properties would be managed with the long-term health and abundance of the region at the forefront. 

“Profit isn’t driving management. It’s the ecosystem, it’s local economies,” Ellings said. “We become managers ourselves in the woods. That’s the route we’ve taken.”

Modeling found that increasing the presence of older trees, which are less efficient at sucking up water, could help the river gain water in the crucial, low-flow summer months, Ellings said. 

It’s an endeavor that will take time, he said. In the meantime, he said the tribe and its partners will take any measures it can to bolster the health of the ecosystem, including the culturally important plants such as huckleberry and beargrass found there. 

“This is taking the long perspective,” he said. “Trees have to get 60 to 80 years old before dynamic shifts from being thirsty trees to less thirsty trees to where we see measurable gains in stream flow. That’s part of the story — to reverse 200 years of degradation, it’ll take another 100 years. We’re going to start now.”

Drone photo provided by the Nisqually Tribe. Story: Trevor Pyle.