Rogue River, OREGON

Recovering Coastal Rivers and Jobs

Young Oregon Coast coho take their time in freshwater, exploring pools and side channels for a year or more before their big ocean exodus.

That extended freshwater residency is why efforts to restore coho habitat pay off for other salmonids. In the upper Rogue River, work to expand cold water reaches for coho is a boon for basin steelhead. In the Nehalem, efforts to bring back beavers and their ponds restore ecological processes good for both coho and rearing fall Chinook. And reconnecting tidal wetlands in the Siletz, Coos Bay, and Siuslaw watersheds helps all salmon species living here.

Recovering threatened Oregon Coast coho is the goal of the Coast Coho Partnership, which Wild Salmon Center helped establish in 2015. In the process, this work is restoring some of the most productive salmon watersheds south of Canada. Working with local teams, WSC drafts science-based action plans for these watersheds, identifying high-priority coho habitat restoration projects that WSC then works to fund. Since 2017, the partnership has driven more than $10 million into local restoration efforts, thanks in large part to support from the NOAA Restoration Center, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

This work also has economic benefits for local communities. On the Rogue’s West Evans Creek, a WSC grant to the Applegate Partnership & Watershed Council is funding a large wood installation that will employ some two dozen people, from log fellers to archaeologists.

But recovering coho will take more than habitat restoration. That’s why the partnership knits tightly with WSC’s Oregon policy work. In the Coos Bay headwaters, we helped keep the 82,000-acre Elliott State Forest in public ownership; WSC’s Bob Van Dyk is helping to develop a conservation plan for the Elliott with other stakeholders. On the Nehalem, we’ve complemented restoration work with a state scenic waterway designation. And in the Rogue River basin, we’ve also secured new stream protections on private forestland.

“Oregon Coast coho is well-positioned for a comeback,” says WSC Coast Program Director Mark Trenholm. “Local communities get it: they want to fish for coho again, and know that we can get there through strategic restoration and better stewardship of working lands.”

Below: Maggie Peyton of the Upper Nehalem Watershed Council and WSC’s Mark Trenholm on the Nehalem River. Bottom: Oregon Chinook (Alamy).  Top: Rogue River (Alamy).

Restoring Flows and Spring Chinook to Rogue

The Rogue River’s spring Chinook run is one of the most important left in the Pacific Northwest. Spring Chinook have a special tool for warming climates: they climb rivers early to wait out hot summers in cool upper stretches. But on the Rogue, one dam’s water management system is impacting springers’ natural advantage.

The 327-foot Lost Creek Dam controls river temperatures by releasing reservoir water; in theory, this helps wild fish by acting as a seasonal HVAC system. The Rogue’s fall Chinook now use this higher and cooler late-summer water to spawn earlier and farther upriver. The problem? They’re now reaching spring Chinook habitat, interbreeding, and diluting springers’ unique genetics.

That genetic shift is important. Research from WSC and UC Davis shows that spring Chinook are wired for early return. To protect springer genetics—and their natural advantage—WSC Science Director Matt Sloat says the Rogue needs creative water solutions.

“Returning to natural water flows and temperatures would restore the benefits of being a spring Chinook,” says Dr. Sloat. “We’re combining genetic studies and advanced flow modeling to help policymakers better understand how to secure a strong future for wild Rogue springers.”

Nehalem River, OREGON

Sea Change for Oregon Forestry?

For two decades, Wild Salmon Center labored against powerful Oregon timber interests to modernize salmon habitat protections for state and private forests on the coast. These forests, which span millions of acres, harbor some of the greatest remaining wild salmon and steelhead runs in the Lower 48—in rivers like the Nehalem, the Rogue, and the Umpqua.

In recent years, WSC worked with the media and new champions on the state board of forestry to spotlight Oregon’s weak forestry practices. Then last year, frustrated by the slow pace of change, WSC and a raft of other conservation, fishing, and citizen groups filed a series of ballot measures to overhaul forest policy.

Finally, the political ground shifted.

In January and February, WSC helped negotiate a historic forestry reform agreement between a dozen conservation organizations and an equal number of timber companies.

The parties agreed to expanded forested stream buffers in the Rogue-Siskiyou region of Southwest Oregon, and to new pesticide spray notifications and spray buffers around streams, residences, and schools across Oregon. And we agreed to begin a process for creating comprehensive rules to protect salmon habitat on over 10 million acres of private timberland in Oregon, with the goal of completing a federally recognized Habitat Conservation Plan.

A similar Habitat Conservation Plan in Washington state led to better protections on 60,000 stream miles. Oregon could see improvement across 50,000 stream miles, a crucial survival tool for salmon in the face of climate change.

In a show of good faith, conservation and citizen groups rescinded the forestry ballot measures, and timber groups dropped their three counter measures. And in June, timber companies agreed to adopt temporary stream buffer expansions in the Rogue-Siskiyou region, while the parties awaited legislative action.

It will take 18 months to complete a habitat conservation plan, and then a federal process for final approval. But combined with in-progress habitat conservation plans for the Elliott and Tillamook state forests, we are close to a generational win for wild salmon and clean water in some of the best salmon strongholds in the Lower 48.

Below: Governor Kate Brown and WSC’s Bob Van Dyk (below, right) following signing of Oregon timber agreement (WSC). Bottom: Nehalem River (Justin Bailie). Above: Nehalem River (David Herasimtschuk, Freshwaters Illustrated).

The Scenic Nehalem

The Nehalem River is one of six world-class salmon and steelhead rivers that flow out of the 500,000-acre Tillamook and Clatsop state forests. It’s also a hot spot of fish diversity with six species of wild fish, including rare summer Chinook, strong coho runs, Oregon’s largest wild winter steelhead, and some of the last chum salmon south of Canada.

Now, a 17-mile stretch of the Nehalem is officially a state scenic waterway, following the hard work of Wild Salmon Center and our partners, along with Governor Kate Brown’s signature last year. Scenic waterway status means that the lower stretch of the Nehalem will remain free of dams, and its natural water flows will be protected for fish and wildlife. Additionally, landowners will work with state parks officials to minimize development impacts within a quarter-mile buffer on either side of the designated river run. (Wild Salmon Center worked successfully last year to stop a clearcut scheduled for 67 acres of state forest along this stretch of river).

“This designation helps secure one of the most beautiful sections of the Nehalem and some of the most famous winter steelhead riffles and pools in the Pacific Northwest,” says WSC CEO Guido Rahr.

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