Working the Watershed

Washington's Willapa Alliance melds science, economic development and plenty of time to plot the restoration of a battered coastal ecosystem

  • The Willapa Basin watersheds

  • Aerial photo of Willapa Bay

    Michael Parker
  • 20-mile long sandbar separates Willapa Bay from Pacific Ocean

    Michael Parker
  • Gillnetting for salmon

    Charles B. Summers
  • Weyerhaeuser biologist Brian Fransen waves his fish-stunning wand

    Richard Manning
  • The Willapa Bay roads, including logging roads

  • Clearcuts butt up to the Willapa Bay

    Michael Parker
  • An oyster picker rolls a basket in Willapa Bay

    Charles B. Summers
  • High school students help net Chinook salmon at the hatchery

    Charles B. Summers

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 region:

What damage have we done to the once magnificent runs of salmon and how might we undo some of it?

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 residents.

The newcomers build new homes in the area, while the old-timers who once lived off the salmon and oysters watch their economies decline.

Willapa 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 farms.

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.

The 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.

This diffuse, 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 debate.

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 conveners.

Biologist Fransen 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.

Before 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.

Like the 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 crossings.

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.

The damaged 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 line.

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 blame.

"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."

Lake then 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 Willapa-Naselle divide.

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 claim.

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.

There's another 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 cut-and-run.

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."

In Willapa, 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 gorilla.

"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 vigorously.

"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 damage.

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 development.

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 resource extraction.

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.

Brian 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.

He found 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 ocean-derived elements.

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 generation.

But not 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 years later.

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.

We now 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 demands.

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 work.

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.

Does that mean the entire process is doomed? Lebovitz says no. He thinks a lack of consensus is inevitable, but not fatal.

"We're dealing with very difficult issues. I don't think we can honestly expect to see everyone come to complete agreement on all issues.

"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.

An all-or-nothing 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 year.

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 get competition."

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.

If 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."

The 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 species.

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 information.

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.

In the 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 it.

Richard Manning lives in Astoria, Oregon. Ed Marston, High Country News publisher, contributed to this report.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- A 1,000-year plan for Willapa Bay

- A newsman's overview of Willapa

- Defender of fish

- An optimistic man

- A Chicago bank will try to invigorate Willapa Bay

For more information, contact the Willapa Alliance, P.O. Box 278, South Bend, WA 98586 (360/875-5195).

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