Pacts Offers Path to Streamside Habitat Protection

by Lorraine Loomis

Lorraine Loomis USEPA Photo by Eric Vance. Public domain image

The most powerful actions we can take to recover our region’s salmon are to give our rivers and streams room to breathe while protecting the land and vegetation lining their banks.

The Timber/Fish/Wildlife (TFW) Agreement and Forests and Fish Report (FFR) successfully tackled similar salmon habitat issues across the state’s landscape decades ago, offering a win-win approach to cooperative natural resources management that is unique in the nation. We think the processes offer a blueprint to expand and further protect streamside habitat throughout Washington.

A war in the woods raged in Washington in the early 1980s. Federal courts had ruled that tribal treaty rights include the right to protected salmon habitat. Meanwhile, tribes, government agencies, timber companies, environmental groups and others were battling in court over the effects to fish, wildlife and water quality of timber harvests on private forestlands. Time, money and effort that could have been better spent on protecting and restoring our shared natural resources were instead being wasted in court.

In a bold move, NWIFC Chairman Billy Frank Jr. and Stu Bledsoe, Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a timber industry trade group, committed to find a way forward through cooperation. What they found was a solution that not only protected fish and wildlife habitat but also ensured a healthy and sustainable timber industry.

Dozens of meetings between all parties led to the creation of the 1987 TFW Agreement that replaced conflict with a cooperative science-based management approach. Best available science would now “lead wherever the truth takes us,” Frank said.

Today, those ideals embodied in law protect more than 60,000 miles of streams on 9.3 million acres of private forestlands across Washington. But it is the classic case of one step forward, two steps back. Growth, development and a changing climate are causing salmon populations to continue to decline because we are losing their habitat in other areas faster than it can be restored and protected.

Riparian (streamside) habitat is among the most important for salmon. Shade from trees and other vegetation helps keep water temperatures low. More than 1,700 miles of streams and rivers in western Washington do not meet federal or state standards for high water temperatures that can kill salmon.

Streamside vegetation also filters harmful runoff and slows erosion to prevent eggs from being smothered. When trees fall into a stream, they help create gravel spawning beds and pools where salmon can rest.

The state and treaty tribes in western Washington have begun an effort to develop a uniform, science-based riparian habitat management approach for non-forestlands. Like TFW, we expect it to meet resistance and we will need support from stakeholders such as timber industry, farmers, environmental groups, developers and others.

We should look to the TFW/FFR model because it shows that when all parties win, they are invested in the solution and are committed to making it work.

At the core is a willingness to agree to find consensus. It doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want, but what is needed. It requires participants to listen carefully and give the same priority to addressing the needs of others as they do their own. It encourages creative problem-solving that breeds cooperation, trust and commitment to find opportunities that benefit everyone.

Embracing and expanding the TFW/FFR model is a ready-made opportunity to slow the decline of salmon with the help of a proven science-based management approach to restore and protect critical streamside habitat.

Lorraine Loomis is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, This column represents the natural resources management interests and concerns of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington.

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