Working With Local Farmer, SSC Launches Ambitious Recovery Project

LA CONNER (August 1, 2003) – The latest salmon recovery project from the Swinomish Tribe and the Skagit System Cooperative (SSC) isn’t just critical for fish: it’s a positive step, across daunting barriers, toward cooperative environmental work in the Skagit basin.

SSC, the natural resources consortium of the Swinomish, Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle tribes, is collaborating with local farmer Gail Thulen on a comprehensive habitat restoration plan for 300 acres of Swinomish tribal land ‘ which Thulen leases to grow wheat, peas and potatoes.

“This project is crucially important because a huge amount of habitat that isn’t currently accessible to any salmon species will be made accessible to all salmon species,” said Lorraine Loomis, fisheries manager with the Swinomish Tribe. “But it also shows that the tribes’ salmon recovery agenda applies to our own land, too ; and that we want to work cooperatively. We’ll do whatever we have to do to save these fish.”

The cooperation with Thulen is noteworthy because disputes between tribes and the agricultural community often grab headlines — but SSC always pursues mutually beneficial solutions first.

“Farms and fish can co-exist, we just have to work together and find creative solutions,” said Loomis. “The work we’re doing shows that cooperation is possible, and that we can bring back our wild salmon runs without seriously impacting agriculture.”

Known as the Smokehouse flood plain, the site on the Swinomish Tribe’s reservation near La Conner extends north up to the Highway 20 Bridge. In addition to essential habitat improvements throughout the site’s 300 acres, SSC work will open access to five miles of the Swinomish channel network currently unavailable to salmon.

Immediate benefits are expected for sockeye, pink and chum salmon, which should use the area in high numbers; coho and threatened chinook will also get a boost. Of particular importance will be SSC’s restoration of marsh habitat, which is in short supply and critical to salmon production in the Skagit basin.

Highlights of the restoration plan include:

  • Replacement of failing, fish-blocking tide gates;
  • Re-planting 50 streamside acres with native vegetation; and
  • Improving connections between the flood plain’s creeks, sloughs and channels, which will enhance the site’s natural habitat functions.

While performing the extensive restoration work necessary, the tribes will take great care to minimize any risk to Thulen’s crops. After dredging sediment from the sloughs to improve habitat connectivity, tribal crews will use that material to shape berms designed to protect the adjacent agricultural land from salt water intrusion. Finally, for each acre of land impacted by the project, either by decreased productivity or exclusion from tilling, the tribe will financially compensate Thulen.

“For the past 150 years, tribal people have watched fish runs being depleted by habitat destruction. We know what it’s like to watch your livelihood, your food source, disappear,” said Loomis. “That’s why the last thing we want to do is cause unnecessary problems for agriculture, and why we’re taking every imaginable precaution.”

Funding has come from multiple sources: the Wetland Reserve Program through Natural Resources Conservation Service supported the riparian planting; the state Salmon Recovery Funding board supplied money for tide gate replacement and monitoring; and the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided funds for the initial investigations into the project. The restoration work is set to begin in 2004.

“We hope this serves as a model for future environmental restoration,” said Loomis. “If we work together, we can find projects that are acceptable to everyone, and that’s the best way to save the salmon.”


For more information, contact: Jeff Shaw, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 360.424.8226, 360.481.3541 cellular; Lorraine Loomis, fisheries manager, Swinomish Tribe; and Steve Hinton, director of restoration, Skagit System Cooperative, both at 360.466.3163.