WILLAPA BAY, Wash. - Wading a creek too small to name, Brian Fransen waves a sort of wand over the water. He bears a robotic-looking backpack that periodically hums, a signal that some little fish are going to have a bad day. Stunned by the wand, they boil to the surface to be stuck in buckets, sorted, counted and weighed. Their stomachs are pumped before they go back to the stream, mostly unharmed.
Fransen is a fish
biologist, part of a broad network of investigators filtering
through the streams and estuaries of the Pacific coastal rain
forest, trying to unravel the central question of the
What damage have we done to the once
magnificent runs of salmon and how might we undo some of
He asks this question on a tributary of the
Willapa River (pronounced WILL-a-puh), part of the 680,000-acre
watershed of Willapa Bay.
The bay, in the very
southwestern corner of Washington state, is cut off from the
Pacific Ocean by a 20-mile-long sandbar called Long Beach. The
peninsula is the home of small and unintentionally quaint towns,
with the ocean on one side and the bay on the other. This is where
the summer tourists come - and in a phenomenon increasingly seen in
the Northwest, new seasonal and year-round
The newcomers build new homes in the
area, while the old-timers who once lived off the salmon and
oysters watch their economies decline.
Bay's watershed is not part of the Columbia Basin. Even though the
Columbia River's mouth is here, the hand of hills that holds the
bay is isolated from the basin hydrologically. It is different from
the Northwest in other ways, too: The watershed's six major rivers
are undammed and almost all the land is privately held tree
It is here, in this landscape made up of
oceanfront and beach resorts and bay and industrial forest, that a
loosely connected network of individuals and groups is conducting a
long-running experiment - they think in terms of 1,000 years - in
the restoration of ecosystems and economies. It is an experiment
that was begun by environmentalists but that avoids the movement's
usual tools: lawsuits and confrontation.
experiment rests on science and innovative banking and
entrepreneurial activity. It rests also on convincing those who
might regard each other as potential enemies that they have a few
interests in common.
difficult-to-explain experiment started in 1992, when the area
attracted two conservation organizations: Ecotrust and the Nature
Conservancy. What happened then is a matter of local
Some think the two environmental groups
set up the Willapa Alliance as a puppet group, to do the work of
the outside environmentalists. Others say the alliance has evolved
into a legitimate local group, and that the Nature Conservancy and
Ecotrust had simply acted as the initial
says the goal of the alliance is to preserve or restore the ecology
by strengthening those activities - salmon fishing, oyster growing,
cranberry farming, small-scale logging - that have a stake in the
health of the land.
Whether you see the
alliance as an indigenous organization or as an environmental front
group, there is no doubt that one of its prime movers was Spencer
Beebe, the founder of Ecotrust. He is a visionary, an accomplished
fly fisherman and a master fund raiser.
coming to Portland, Beebe worked on saving tropical rain forests,
where conservation groups learned the hard way that preservation
could best be done by giving local people an economic stake in the
health of the forest.
When Beebe returned home
to the Northwest, he saw the clearcuts that had resulted from the
rapacious round of logging in the 1980s. He decided then that North
America's temperate rain forests could benefit from the same
lesson. So he founded Ecotrust, which now raises close to $3
million a year to operate in coastal rain forests in the United
States and Canada.
tropical rain forests, the watershed that feeds Willapa Bay needs
help. It has been cut so thoroughly that each square mile averages
about five miles of logging roads, close to three miles of
streamside roads, and roughly 15 stream
Of the six heavily logged drainages,
almost 18 percent of the total land area is at high risk of
landslide. Less than 2.5 percent of the land in these six drainages
could be called old-growth forest.
watershed has also not left the area awash in prosperity. Salmon
and oysters still figure in Willapa's well-being, but one can
ramble fishing villages like Chinook, Ilwaco and South Bend, and
wealth is not what comes to mind. Per capita income runs well below
the average for Washington state, and the gap is widening. As of
1990, 17.2 percent of the families in Pacific County, which
accounts for most of the watershed, lived below the poverty
In theory, it might
seem that the Willapa Alliance pits the clean rural economy -
oysters, cranberries, et al - against logging. But anyone who
thinks that one rural economy is going to make war on another rural
economy hasn't spent time with Bob Lake. Once a professional salmon
fisherman, Lake now spends most of his days threading his Chevy
pickup through Willapa's endless web of logging roads.
He heads a crew of out-of-work fishermen hired
with federal money to survey and help restore ravaged streams. On
the trip, he ticked off those he blames for the demise of the
fishery and his livelihood. His complaints distill to one: the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. State policies do need
to shoulder some blame, but all around his pickup that day were
clearcuts, landslides, roads and sediment-choked streams. Not once
did Lake single out the loggers for
"The bottom line is,
there are too many people preying on too few fish," he said. "Let's
not point any fingers. If you point a finger, then pretty soon
you've got three pointing back."
launched a discussion one hears often in Willapa: Yes, logging has
created some problems, but the methods are improving and
Weyerhaeuser Corp. is trying to do a better job of protecting the
fish. There are grounds for this assertion, but as Lake spoke, I
was thinking of a clearcut I walked a few days before near the
A small pool, Lost Lake
stood in a square mile of clearcut, some of it freshly logged old
growth. The lake's surface was barely visible under the debris.
Fresh stumps stood within 30 feet of a live stream, and a single
wan row of trees stood as the creek's only "buffer" against the
clearcut. Much of the cut was just a year old; egregious logging
practices are not history, as loggers often
Pressed about this, Lake still declined
to blame the loggers, even as he pulled onto a live cut.
Toward the top of the hill loomed a skidding
tower. This is not unusual. Throughout the bay's watershed, roads
wind along streams mired knee-deep in sediment. Skidding towers dot
the horizon and signal whistles cut the afternoon air.
All of this helped do in the salmon. Sediment
silts up their spawning beds beyond use. Loss of streamside
vegetation warms waters and robs their ability to hold oxygen.
Debris and road culverts render streams impassable to migrating
fish. And this record of destruction began in Willapa in the 1850s.
Lake probably knows this better than I do. But
he also knows other things. He tells me his neighbors are loggers
and he understands them.
"I've done all the jobs in
logging, too," he says. Pressed further, he will only say there is
simply no point in entering a battle one cannot win. Politically,
industrial logging is the proverbial 2,000-pound gorilla that
sleeps wherever it wishes.
problem with the idea that you can set one rural constituency
against another. Among the Willapa Alliance's set of founders was
Weyerhaeuser and another large logging operation, the Campbell
Group. They wield enough power in Pacific County to have drowned
the alliance at birth.
Why wouldn't the big
companies have done that anyway, simply to ensure their continued
dominance? One reason is laws like the Endangered Species Act,
which could be applied here to save salmon.
Perhaps more important is how a company like Weyerhaeuser sees
itself. To many environmentalists, industrial logging is a
once-over scraping bare of the land. Willapa has had its share of
cut-and-run companies, but Weyerhaeuser sees itself in Willapa for
the long haul. Most of the Willapa Basin is being cut by the giant
company for the third time. Some of it is already yielding a fourth
cutting of trees.
The firm pioneered the
industrial version of sustained-yield forestry on the Clemons Tree
Farm in this basin. This industrial version rests on clearcuts,
herbicides and monoculture, but it is not
It is dangerous to try to think
like a huge corporation. But it just may be that when the two
environmental groups showed up preaching sustainability rather than
litigation, Weyerhaeuser thought: "At last, they're beginning to
think like us."
nearly 90 percent of the 600,000 acres of uplands in the drainage -
another 80,000 acres is tidelands - is in private and state tree
farms, with Weyerhaeuser by far the largest single owner, holding
47 percent of those tree farms. The logging giant is responsible
for its fair share of what has happened to Willapa.
Nevertheless, it is not just Bob Lake who has
decided he has to live with Weyerhaeuser. Allen Lebovitz, raised in
the East, a biologist by training, and graduate of the Yale School
of Forestry, has been in the watershed three years, spearheading
the Willapa Alliance's fisheries recovery program. He had been with
me that day on Lost Lake. He called it the saddest sight he had
seen in all of his wandering of Willapa. I repeated a charge I'd
heard others make: that the alliance was being too timid with
logging corporations, and was in effect ignoring the
"We've tried it the
other way," Lebovitz said. "We've tried the head-on confrontation.
What happens when you take on the 2,000-pound gorilla? You get
slapped around pretty
"Frankly, they own
the majority of the watershed. They own it outright. Lock, stock
and barrel ... If you want to work with private industry, private
property, it's their game, and you do need to play by some of their
rules. At the same time, that doesn't keep you from trying to win."
Besides, Lebovitz and others say, Weyerhaeuser
has been both more responsive and progressive than the other
logging companies and the state in trying to undo some of logging's
So that's the
set-up: A bay and its uplands that still depend primarily on
harvesting natural resources from private land, rather than using
them in a New West way, as a scenic backdrop for tourists and those
fleeing urban life.
Enter the environmentalists
who are not using such tools as the Endangered Species Act.
Instead, Ecotrust and the Nature Conservancy think they can create
ecological sustainability through a different form of economic
If the bay is to become
ecologically and economically healthier, something new must be
brought to what is, after all, a century-old system of natural
One innovation deals with
money. Ecotrust has helped bring to the area a unique,
"nature-lending" bank that has already begun pumping money into
small, natural resource-based business (see story page 12). Another
strategy is to get serious about science.
Fransen, the man with the wand and a Weyerhaeuser employee, is part
of the effort to figure out what makes the Willapa Bay ecosystem
tick. So far as I can tell, he is doing good, honest science.
Fransen spent the 1995-1996 winter anchoring a pile of salmon
carcasses (obtained from a hatchery) into a stretch of stream. Then
he compared growth rates of salmon and trout fingerlings there to
rates on a stream with no carcasses.
that not only coho, but chinook, steelhead and cutthroat trout all
grew much faster on the carcass-laden stream. "You just look at the
fish, and they're like little Goodyear blimps swimming around."
They're full of nutrients that originated in
the ocean, his analysis of carbon isotopes reveals. He found that
an average of 40 percent - sometimes 60 percent - of the carbon in
tissue from young fish that had never seen the ocean was built of
It does not stop with
fish. A sample of salmonberries, a bush that grows at streamside,
showed that 18 percent of their nitrogen came from the ocean,
giving a new significance to the plant's name. They are literally
built of dead salmon.
At certain times of the
year, as many as 20 vertebrate species, including deer and elk,
feed directly on salmon carcasses, cycling those nutrients farther
into the landscape. Life, then, flows both ways. The forest raises
the salmon, but the salmon also raise the forest.
In a healthy watershed, the fish leave the
bay's web of streams no larger than a fat pencil and disappear into
the ocean for three to six years. They return weighing up to 60
pounds, all biomass, the fat of the land, harvested from the sea.
Salmon are traders, importers, bringing this mass of life back into
the forest to feed it. In the meantime, they feed their next
anymore, of course, or at least not in significant numbers. And
certainly not in the old way, in which salmon were spawned on
Willapa's streams, and then swam out into the ocean, only to return
The new way involves hatcheries.
As the salmon harvests decreased due to logging and overfishing,
"solutions' were created. Beginning as early as 1899, hatcheries
began trying to make up for productivity lost to logging.
Willapa's salmon fishery today is almost
completely supported by the watershed's three hatcheries on the
Naselle, Nemah and Willapa rivers. Although an active program
stretches back to the turn of the century, the heavy meddling dates
to the 1950s, following a post-war logging boom. And hatchery
production has increased about tenfold since 1950. By 1990, the
three facilities were hatching about 35 million salmon eggs a year
and releasing about 15 million fish.
know that salmon are fitted to their streams. Scientists are only
beginning to appreciate the enormous degree to which evolution has
fine-tuned salmon to survive the particular conditions of a given
stream. It is not true that a fish is a fish, nor that a chinook is
a chinook, nor even that a Nemah River coho is a North River coho.
Each drainage places particular demands on its inhabitants, and
natural selection has left local populations matched to those
Because none of this was understood in
the 1950s, the state moved fish long distances, shifting them
around as if they could adapt to any location. It didn't
Ed Maxwell, who managed the three
hatcheries for the state, blames the salmon's demise on loggers.
But he also says of the hatcheries, "There was no real concern for
wild fish at all. They didn't understand about genetics and how
unique different stocks are."
The result was
that those native fish surviving the logging were further weakened
by the floods of hatchery fish competing with them and even eating
them. When production dropped, Maxwell says, the hatcheries simply
turned up the volume. If only 1 percent survived, as opposed to
say, 10 percent, no problem. The hatcheries would simply release 10
times as many fish to compete with an already suppressed population
of natural spawn.
In an ideal world, logging
would be suppressed, the hammered forests would be revived, and
natural spawning would gradually take over from the hatcheries.
Many or most of the natural stocks may be lost, but new stocks
could eventually adapt to the now barren streams.
But that's not likely to happen. The surviving
fishing industry depends totally on hatcheries. And Weyerhaeuser
isn't about to stop cutting its trees.
So in the
short run, the best approach is probably to make the hatcheries
work better. And that brings us to Kathleen Sayce, a biologist who
runs an independent lab on Willapa Bay and who is the alliance's
science and information program director. She grew up in a 19th
century house near the peninsula village of Nahcotta, and she is
still there. The windows in her book-lined living room look onto
Willapa Bay - her laboratory.
She says, "I grew
up ... thinking everybody had a saltwater lab in her background."
Once she had finished her formal education, she
came home because "there was a lot of science that needed doing for
the community." Her independent lab now does contract work for
various groups and agencies.
In 1992, Sayce
began performing plankton tows, a way of sampling the amount of
plankton present in the bay at any moment. Plankton are tiny plants
and animals that are the foundation of all ocean life, the vast
floor of the food chain. They are to the marine world what grass is
to the prairie, the way the ocean harnesses the sun's power to
support life. Oddly, no one had bothered to routinely census
plankton before in Willapa Bay, which is a bit like a rancher who
never inventoried his or her grass.
"Microbiology rules the
world, but we know almost nothing about microbiology," says Sayce.
Her five years' worth of data show that plankton levels are
anything but stable. They fluctuate greatly both year to year and
week to week during the summer peak of productivity.
By timing hatchery releases to plankton levels,
Sayce says, "You ensure that no matter where they go in the
estuary, they are going to get lunch."
Is that a good thing - helping hatchery-bred
fish find food? Won't that just make it more certain that the 15
million fish the three hatcheries release each year will overwhelm
the already beleaguered naturally spawning fish?
It's a good question. Sayce has done good biology, but it hasn't
necessarily resolved the human conflicts. In fact, while the
biological research is going well, the science of bringing
Willapa's many interests together is in trouble.
The alliance's board is diverse. It includes everyone from
cranberry marketers to oyster growers to gillnetters to
Weyerhaeuser. They spend lots of time at meetings, but Lebovitz,
the biologist, and the alliance's director, Dan'l Markham, a former
county commissioner, a preacher and a lifelong resident of the
watershed, tell me that consensus has not occurred. In the latest
example, the alliance has spent several years developing an action
plan to restore the salmon, and it has drawn considerable criticism
from both the loggers and the fishers. In fact, both "stakeholder"
groups are threatening to pull up stakes.
that mean the entire process is doomed? Lebovitz says no. He thinks
a lack of consensus is inevitable, but not
"We're dealing with
very difficult issues. I don't think we can honestly expect to see
everyone come to complete agreement on all
"But I don't think
it's all or nothing." The alliance's approach, he says, is to get
as much agreement as it can.
approach to hatcheries, he says, involves seeing them, from one
side, as needed to produce a surplus of catchable fish for the
gillnetters, and, from the other side, as a total threat to
naturally spawning fish.
The alliance, using
its science and its avoidance of absolutes, looks for a way to
advance its agenda without head-banging. To be precise, it seeks a
way to separate the hatchery fish from the naturally spawning fish
that return to breed in the same place year after
To do this, the alliance has hatched a
pilot project, now in its second year, "which moves the fish to a
location away from naturally spawning fish populations so you don't
The three hatcheries are on
three rivers, and when they release their millions of fish, they
flood the system, in a broadcast way. In the alliance's pilot
project, the hatchery fish are taken to places in the bay where no
naturally spawning fish are present. They are kept in floating net
pens until they have acclimated to the area and until Sayce's
plankton tows show that the plankton levels are high enough to give
them a good start. And then they are released. Lebovitz says that
those fish are expected to return to the location of the floating
pens in four or five years. They can be caught there by the fishers
without endangering naturally spawning fish.
the experiment works, the alliance will have advanced its agenda.
Lebovitz says, "You capitalize on areas where
you agree, you focus on getting all the best information, you get
that information out to everyone who needs to see it, and you
encourage them to think critically about the issues. You're pulling
rather than pushing."
alliance is working on more than hatcheries. Lebovitz and Markham
tell the story of Bear River, a heavily logged-over stream in the
south end of the watershed. But once people put on boots and waded
its upstream reaches, it was found to be, in the surveyors' words,
a "fish factory." It was teeming with native, naturally hatched,
wild coho, as well as four other salmonid
No one expected this abundance.
Further, the productivity came from an unlogged section of state
land. Anyone could see it, even those who believed there is no
correlation between logging and fish, or that only hatcheries can
produce fish, or that there are no native runs surviving in the
hard-used Willapa Basin.
So what do you do?
Lebovitz and Markham said if a plan is to be any good, it must
curtail some of the activities like logging that harmed the salmon
in the first place. That is, if it is any good, it can't produce
consensus. It has identified some steps that can be taken on some
stretches of some streams independent of consensus. The alliance
can plan with everyone at the table, but it can also act
independently, consensus or no. It can rely on the best science to
guide its hand and then just go ahead and do it.
And do it right out in front of everybody, so
when the naturally spawning fish come back, as the Bear River
proves they can, their presence becomes part of the community's
It is the
accepted wisdom among some that exploitation has created a range of
deeply vested interests, and that among them consensus is
impossible. Further, it is held, nature and man's meddling hand
together are too complicated to allow scientific consensus. We will
never have all the answers, and that will give those with a stake
in business-as-usual an out.
It's a powerful
argument for despair. In fact, some will see this article as a
powerful argument for despair. But there is an alternative. The
alternative to believing that nothing can be done is to gather the
best information and then act - and let the results of that action
become in turn the information base for the next action.
This is how communities evolve and accrete
information, the same way salmon evolve and pass on the specific
information regarding the conditions of life. There are no
solutions, certainly none that can be imposed. Instead, there is a
commitment to engagement, of engaging the stream of life in a
place, to learning and to doing the best one can.
It is very different from the usual approach
the environmental movement has been taking. It is an abiding
mystery of our time how environmentalists can believe mightily and
wholly in the power of natural systems to adapt through the slow,
painstaking accretion of genetic information, but believe that same
principle can be short-circuited in the evolution of human social
life. This is the fallacy of regulation, of directed solutions, of
well-meaning outsiders who think they can impose what appears to be
a good idea on a community.
Yet it is also true
that there are good ideas. There are things that ought to be done
that aren't being done in small and isolated communities. Further,
the rest of us, the larger community, has a stake in what happens
in the small and isolated community, and this is the paradox the
alliance wrestles with in Willapa Bay.
end, the experiments may fail. Success, if any, will come slowly
and in fits and starts, with setbacks. Failure and time drive
evolution. Still, I can't help but think that anytime loggers,
gillnetters and biologists literally wade the same stream,
together, and squeeze the same fish, something will come of
Richard Manning lives in
Astoria, Oregon. Ed Marston, High Country News publisher,
contributed to this report.
information, contact the Willapa Alliance, P.O. Box 278, South
Bend, WA 98586 (360/875-5195).