Return of the Native Coastal coho salmon have survived 150 dismal years, but barely. Now Oregon officials say coho are no longer threatened. Critics say that’s wishful thinking

By Paul Koberstein

Y ACHATS — A walk through the woods with Paul Engelmeyer is like a trip both back and forward in time.

Since the late 1980s, he has been fighting to protect coho salmon in watersheds along the Oregon Coast. He sees his work with government agencies and private land owners there as a model for future watershed recovery everywhere.

“It should be duplicated throughout the region,” he says.  

With a walking stick, the native of St. Louis, Mo., makes his way around the ancient forests near Cape Perpetua as though he’s always lived there. Cape Perpetua, a rich forested environment just south of Yachats where mountains, forests, tidal pools and ocean meet, provides a tall promontory from which he paints the big picture.

Three watersheds near the Cape -the Yachats River, Cummins Creek and Tenmile Creek -- are his classroom, and the property owners, politicians, scientists and volunteers who come for a visit are his students. “It’s a working classroom on watershed recovery,” he says.  

Engelmeyer is at the forefront of the Oregon Coast’s watershed restoration movement, which until recently had built momentum restoring coho salmon habitats and populations. Enthusiasm among Oregon’s watershed volunteers exploded after voters approved massive new salmon funding with their overwhelming passage of Ballot Measure 66 in 1998.

But for many volunteers interviewed for this article, the enthusiasm waned as the Legislature diverted millions in state and federal salmon dollars to other programs, such as a new research hatchery and pest control. The work to restore the coho remains monumental, if you consider that the runs have fallen to 80 to 95 percent from where they were 150 years ago.

But the state’s commitment to bring the coho back that far has been questioned by numerous critics. Instead, Engelmeyer and others say, the state aims to bring them back only so far as they can without placing any additional requirements on timber harvesters and agriculture.

“The state appears to be willing to set the bar for success as low as it can,” Engelmeyer says.  The habitat for these runs has been devastated by more than a century of logging, diking, fishing and hatchery practices, as well as urban development.

Many of the worst of these practices ended in the 1960s, but as recently as the 1980s the state was allowing fishers to kill up to 85 percent of the adult salmon before they could spawn. At the same time, the state was dumping 20 million hatchery-bred fish annually into their home streams.

These actions killed many potential spawners while forcing the wild fish to compete with massive numbers of hatchery breeds for food and shelter. As Engelmeyer tells it, success is still decades away.

From his briefcase, he produces scientific report after scientific report showing that Oregon’s forest practices allow logging to cause too much damage to salmon habitat. Without major reform, many scientists say, the recovery of coastal salmon cannot truly begin.

In today’s political climate, that’s a tall order. Oregon’s forestry regulations offer far less protection for salmon than those in Washington and British Columbia, or on any National Forest in the region.

A panel of scientists that reviews Oregon’s salmon recovery plans, the Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team, has determined that Oregon’s forest practices rules “are not adequate” to protect salmon.  

The panel has recommended numerous improvements to forestry practices, but they have been ignored. Meanwhile, federal regulations are being weakened by a Bush administration intent on seeing more logging on federal lands, especially in roadless areas that were supposed to be protected under Clinton. And yet, political leaders in Salem and Washington, D.C., are prepared to trumpet their efforts on behalf of the coho as a glowing success.

This year, they are expected to declare a major political victory by announcing the coho’s recovery from the brink of extinction. The National Marine Fisheries Service is likely to strike the Oregon coastal coho salmon from the Endangered Species List, returning the job of managing the fish back to the state.  

The state claims that the coastal coho are now proven to be “viable,” given its rebound from low populations in the 1990s. They believe the coho are capable of surviving at a low population and are no longer threatened with extinction. However, critics say such claims are closer to fantasy than science, and they point out that numerous state, federal and nongovernmental scientific reports support their skepticism. They buttress their criticism by pointing to Oregon’s inconsistent support for restoring the salmon.

The coho’s decline began around 1850 when white settlers began altering coastal tidelands occupied by aboriginal peoples. That year, the estimated size of coho runs in 10 streams from Nehalem to Coquille exceeded 2.1 million fish a year.  

The long decline bottomed out in the 1990s. The coho have rebounded a little since then, but new reports show that they may be tanking again.

The decline was largely the work of humans, though periodic episodes of poor ocean conditions associated with El Nino have been a factor. It didn’t help that loggers devastated coastal streams by using them as highways to deliver logs to sawmills downstream until at least the late 1950s.

They built so-called “splash dams” to raise river levels to speed the logs down the river, despite the fact that these small dams made it difficult if not impossible for salmon to pass through. Roads were built with no regard to how they might damage fish or water quality.

A large number of road crossings over streams did not provide adequate passage for juvenile and adult fish. Beginning around 1880, tidelands, marshes and wetlands were diked, often with the encouragement of state and federal agencies. Riprap was placed along the rivers to armor streambanks, eliminating important wetland habitat along the shore. Today only about 32 percent of important wetland habitats remain on the Coast — and in the Coquille and Nestucca Basins, less than 10 percent are left.

By the 1950s, the coho had already lost about 90 percent of its population. The estimated population was about 190,000, about the same as today. But in the 1950s, a new phase in the coho’s collapse was just starting. Stream conditions were bad and getting worse.

Woody debris in streams, which adds nutrients and provides cover for migrating fish, was being removed from streams, a practice that continued into the mid1970s. Loggers were also removing all the trees next to streams, causing stream temperatures to increase to lethal levels during hot summer days.

Most of the old growth timber on private lands was largely gone, and a period of rapacious logging on public lands had begun, fueled by the dictates of Congress. Eventually, many state officials realized that their hatchery program was also helping to destroy the wild coho, and in the 1990s, they dramatically reduced hatchery production.

Some state officials, however, still favor the easily produced hatchery fish over the hard work and often costly regulations necessary to nurture wild fish. They also reluctantly made dramatic cuts in sports and commercial harvests.  By 1990, little more than 30,000 were all that remained from the original 2.1 million coastal coho salmon, more than a 98 percent decline, according to a 2005 study published by Richard Lackey of the EPA’s western ecology office and Chad Meengs of Oregon State University, both in Corvallis.

The most salmon rich basin on the Coast, the Siuslaw River, once had an estimated 547,000 adult coho. In 1990, the Siuslaw saw barely 2,000 fish. By 2003, the number jumped to almost 30,000. Even with the recent increase, the coho remains 5 to 20 percent of their historical size, according to Meengs and Lackey.

The streams that provide coho habitat are still in poor condition, many scientists say. These streams still lack the habitat conditions generally understood as important to salmon survival. A recent state report acknowledges a “general scarcity of large instream wood, lack of large conifers in riparian areas, reduced interactions with off channel habitat and the presence of fine sediment in gravels.”

Still, state of Oregon officials claim that their methods for restoring salmon have succeeded. Some of the success, they say, can be a credit to good ocean conditions. But they also believe this rebound shows that the fish are just resilient enough to persist at low abundance no matter how bad ocean conditions get.

But other scientists are skeptical, including Lackey.

“Many experts have concluded that wild salmon recovery efforts in western North America (especially California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and southern British Columbia), as earnest, expensive, and socially disruptive as they currently are, do not appear likely to sustain biologically significant populations of wild salmon through this century,” Lackey said at a conference in February.

“Sustainability remains elusive,” he says, “and it appears that other recovery strategies must be adopted if wild salmon are to survive in significant numbers through the century.”

But Ray Beamesderfer, a private fisheries consultant, contends that over the last two decades new scientific insights and increased efforts to rescue salmon “have led to implementation of a variety of beneficial measures that have already began to reverse declining trajectories.”

In sorting through the debate, it’s worth noting that Beamesderfer’s client is Douglas County in Southern Oregon, which has an economic stake in the issue. Tougher rules protecting salmon could affect logging, mining, agriculture and rural development. Federal scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service have been particularly vocal with their criticism.

Oregon’s plan “doesn’t provide any sort of certainty that the populations will always prove to be that resilient in the future,” says a report by fisheries biologist Robin Waples and others from the agency’s Northwest Science Center.

For example, the Oregon plan “ignores the fact that the majority of tidelands are already degraded, particularly in areas important to coho salmon,” the federal scientists say.  NMFS scientists also question Oregon’s assumption that the coastal landscape will change little in coming decades.

“Assuming a static, non-changing landscape in the central Oregon Coast subregion for the next century flies in the face of the virtual certainties of population growth and land use change over the next century,” Waples and the other NMFS scientists wrote.  As for the coho’s recent rebound since the late 1990s, the federal scientists urge caution to those ready to declare victory now.

 It’s is “too short a time,” they say, to reach any conclusion. They also point out that Measure 37, the new law that eases land-use restrictions on some properties in Oregon, might have a significant negative impact on coho. Then there’s the Oregon Legislature, which in the 2005 session voted for more logging in the Tillamook State Forest, which contains important coho habitat. This will mean less protection for the coho, critics say.

A decision to take coho off the endangered species list would ease many of the strict federal regulations governing salmon habitat, harvest and hatchery production on the Oregon Coast. Timber owners will be cutting down more trees in salmon habitat. They could do so without being sued under the Endangered Species Act.

Farmers and developers may also benefit. But will de-listing help the coho? Not likely.

The state of Oregon will take over the job of managing salmon from the feds. Leaders of the Oregon Legislature have been openly hostile to salmon protection. They have raided salmon recovery budgets, slowing down or scaling back numerous restoration projects.

They fired an agency director, ostensibly for being too supportive of programs to restore coho habitat, and according to sources personally call staff members in natural resources agencies. Some see this as intimidation.  The effects of any intimidation could weaken the state’s already toothless environmental agencies.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has lost its habitat protection division and is divided over whether it’s better to pursue tighter regulations protecting wild fish and their habitat or rely on greater hatchery production. The agency retains its historic fondness for hatcheries, as is evident from its strong support for a new research hatchery in Alsea River basin where critics say the coho’s greatest need is restoration of horrific habitat conditions.

Millions of dollars’ worth of habitat work has been cancelled or delayed building the hatchery, critics say. The Oregon Department of Forestry, which regulates logging on state and private lands in Oregon, plans to harvest the Tillamook State Forest at levels its own experts say will further harm the coho.

Watershed groups on the Coast com- plain that the Oregon Department of Water Quality, the Water Resources Department and the Department of State Lands have been reluctant to enforce laws protecting water quality, instream water rights for fish and wetlands.  

Kathryn McKenzie of Lincoln City, a volunteer for the Salmon-Drift Creek Watershed Council, says she has called state lands officials repeatedly about the illegal dumping of manure into wetlands adjacent to salmon habitat.  She has taken several photographs documenting the dumping. At the time the pictures were taken in February 2005, she says, “there were numerous truck loads being dumped. As far as I am aware this practice continues to date. The material was not dumped straight into the creek but in wetlands and flood plain adjacent to the creek.”

She registered her complaints with the Department of State Lands, the agency in charge of enforcing laws to protect wetlands. Coastal wetlands and marshes are 68 percent gone, and experts say it’s imperative to retain the rest and restore some more. The agency says it investigates cases of illegal dumping or filling wetlands only when it receives complaints.

However, she says the agency has yet to investigate any of her organization’s complaints, McKenzie says, despite its promises to do so. In Oregon, there are few ways to ensure that the water salmon need remains in the stream. Regulations enforced by the Water Resources Department give preference to out of stream users, like irrigators or cities.

Lisa Brown, an attorney for the environmental group WaterWatch, notes that 28 percent of coastal streams fail to provide enough water for coho during the summer dry months. She said the state of Oregon has identified 175 streams on the Coast that are badly in need of more water to support salmon.

And yet, the state has restored only a relative trickle to these streams. Water demand from coastal streams will only increase as populations grow. Some watershed council leaders say the state’s commitment to funding watershed efforts is shaky at best. During the last several years, local watershed councils have been increasing in number while the amount of dollars has not kept pace.

The Upper and lower Nehalem Watershed Councils have lost funding for planning, stream monitoring, education, and assessment, says Maggie Payton, the council coordinator.

“We are still getting a lot done, but it has taken its toll on the volunteers. We are expected to do the same with less. We’ve hung in there, but it has hurt morale.” “Watershed staffing has been increasingly inadequate,” says Wayne Hoffman, coordinator of the Mid-Coast Watershed Council based in Newport.

The need is growing, he says, but the funding is not. Hoffman says the state has set its goals for coho salmon too low. “The goal of my organization is not to get coho just above the magic line, so they don’t need listing,” he says.

“The goal is to get coho really recovered — to the point where they can support healthy fisheries. The means a lot more fish than the minimum to get out from under the ESA.”

The Oregon Plan for restoring coho is based on the work of these volunteer councils. “I know many volunteers that are out there trying to do the right thing,” Engelmeyer says. “Timber land owners, small woodlot owners, rural residents, but until we get the big players on the landscape improving their management, we will not be successful at long-term recovery of our salmon populations. The state appears not to be willing to deal with the real issues, like improving habitat function, protecting uplands and improving habitat conditions in our lowlands.”

Paul Koberstein