Steve Hinton, director of restoration at Skagit System Cooperative, removes a tarp protecting trees and shrubs from frost. These plants will be placed in the ground as part of restoration effort on the Skagit River. Photo: J. Shaw

Steve Hinton, director of restoration at Skagit System
Cooperative, removes a tarp protecting trees and shrubs
from frost. These plants will be placed in the ground as part
of restoration effort on the Skagit River. Photo: J. Shaw

ROCKPORT (March 29, 2002) — Near Rockport, a few channels gently network through an oxbow. The waters meander through thinned stands of mostly deciduous trees. Like many areas near Washington’s rivers, habitat degradation caused by multiple factors has diminished its value to fish and wildlife. But this is no ordinary riverside property: In another generation, perhaps more, this ten-acre parcel likely will be home to the main stem of the Skagit River, and a crucial portion of habitat for the creatures in this watershed. “This is a unique – and in many ways, an ideal – restoration site,” says Steve Hinton, director of restoration with the Skagit System Cooperative (SSC). “In the foreseeable future, we’re going to see the river move into this area. With habitat projects that look toward the long-term, we have a real opportunity to build quality environments for salmon and other wildlife.” SSC, the natural resources consortium of the Swinomish, Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle tribes, is taking advantage of that opportunity. A comprehensive restoration effort is under way here along the banks of the Skagit, where tribal staff are planting thousands of trees and native shrubs in order to enhance the region’s riparian habitat. Though tribal staff will cultivate more than 3,500 new plants on this site, that’s far from all they have done here. They also repaired failing fences and created new barriers designed to stop roaming cattle from disrupting the area’s ecology. Besides removing cattle, SSC staff also removed invasive species like blackberries, which pose a risk to native vegetation. Additionally, SSC has made arrangements to remove a temporary road that stands in the way of one channel’s connection with the river. The most obvious habitat improvements, though, come from the new plants. During February and March, SSC employees reforested this parcel of land with native vegetation – especially conifers like Douglas fir. The property, now owned by Seattle City Light, was purchased from a local landowner. The plants were purchased from Banksavers, the Stillaguamish tribal nursery. Native youth working with the Salmon Corps program provided labor for the project as well. Tribal staff are always working to improve their habitat enhancement efforts. As Hinton says, “We look at every site as an experiment which will tell us how to do better on future sites.” In this case, that means a variety of reforms designed to help trees and shrubs survive at a higher rate. Instead of planting the new stems with no root cover, bushes and trees are planted with complete root wads and inside containers. This helps the plants survive inclement weather. Seedlings are also secured to the ground with bamboo stakes and protected from the elements by a surrounding layer of fabric. “The survival rate has been extremely high,” said Belinda Steele, a natural resources technician with SSC. “We’ve had next to no plant loss.” To ensure this high survival rate continues – and that the restoration continues to go as planned – SSC will monitor the project site for at least five years. “We’re committed to developing the best restoration methods by constantly monitoring the work we do,” said Hinton. “Some of these improvements take a bit more of an up-front investment, but it pays off over the long haul.” Besides working to solve some of the habitat’s current problems, SSC moved to prevent future damage from traditional problems like cattle grazing. Cattle are known to cause erosion of stream banks and to destroy valuable habitat through their eating habits. Cattle, which historically have had free access to these channels, graze down valuable woody material such as willow and cottonwood. This clears the way for invasives like scotch broom – which the cows don’t eat – to take hold, disrupting the habitat. Removing obvious barriers to salmon migration – such as the temporary road – will help fish today, while giving the habitat a long-term boost will assist tomorrow’s young fish as they grow toward adulthood. “The river is going to visit this site,” Hinton said confidently. “Hopefully, we’ll have these trees up to 80-100 feet by then.” – J. Shaw