February 24, 2022
Streamside shade: fish and farm advocates struggle to find common ground
Lauren Gallup

An eagle surveys the Skagit Delta, possibly on the lookout for a salmon dinner. With salmon-spawning streams flowing through agricultural land, advocates for salmon recovery and for preserving farmlands have differing thoughts on proposed legislation related to streamside vegetation. (Andrew Stevens photo USGS)

February 24, 2022
Streamside shade: fish and farm advocates struggle to find common ground
Lauren Gallup

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Salmon recovery is a priority for many in Washington. 

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee announced restoring heathy salmon habitat was a priority in salmon strategy update.

This year, Rep. Debra Lekanoff [D-40] introduced House Bill 1838, the Lorraine Loomis Act named in honor of the late Swinomish tribal leader. The bill focused on protecting, restoring and maintaining habitat along salmon-bearing streams and drainages.

After intense public hearings and agricultural interest opposition, the bill did not move forward this legislative session. 

The importance of streamside, or riparian, vegetation in salmon survival and productivity is linked to lower water temperature due to the shading it provides.

“Shade can substantially reduce the amount of direct … solar radiation, usually the main cause of heating, that reaches a stream,” notes a report from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife — and salmon die when stream temperatures are too high. The report emphasizes that multiple studies on the effects of forestry and other land management confirm the importance of riparian ecosystems to stream temperatures.

study of riparian buffers along Skagit County agricultural streams found that Wiseman Creek with no buffers measured higher and more variable water temperatures than Coal Creek with12-meter buffers, which measured lower constant water temperatures.

But vegetated buffers are exactly what members of the agricultural community across the state opposed in the Lorraine Loomis Act, saying it would result in a loss of productive farmland.

Salmon advocates, however, argue that habitat is the last piece of the puzzle to recover the species.

Fish vs. farms?

Kadi Bizyayeva, deputy fisheries manager and Stillaguamish Tribal Council member, said they heard from folks who opposed the bill, saying they didn’t understand how regulating habitat would be helpful.

Bizyayeva is engaged in efforts to create a budget proviso that would quantify how habitat would be helpful and to develop new legislation to address private property owners’ and agricultural community concerns.

HB 1838 would not have led to a land take under federal or state constitutions, but Bizyayeva said private landowners were still concerned that they would lose land with the provisions of adding 200-foot buffers along streams. 

In an email, Bizyayeva clarified that, “because the actions required had clear nexus with preventing specific impacts from those lands subject to the law, it would not be considered a ‘taking’ under state or federal constitutions.”

The Lorraine Loomis Act would have required only those actions that were necessary to abate public nuisances, such as water pollution and habitat degradation. “The bill provided many incentives for landowners who needed or wanted financial assistance restoring habitat,” Bizyayeva wrote.

Farms vs. fish?

Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farms, said taking of land is exactly what the bill would have done.

Likkel emphasized that farms benefit salmon because when farmland is no longer viable, it turns over to development.

“When you applied what it is that they were asking for, we would lose 30% or more agricultural land in Whatcom County,” Likkel said. “You’d be taking significant amounts of very valuable agricultural land in so doing. You’re putting 75-foot-high trees in all these areas around all these fields. That’s going to make that field even less viable and productive.” 

However, in restoration planting of streamside buffers, there are about 15 different species of trees and shrubs used, depending on area conditions, said Rachel Vasak, executive director of Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association.

A successful vegetation project would have a survival rate of 85% or better and bring vegetation to a “free-to-grow” stage where it is taller and healthier than surrounding — and possibly invasive — species.

Salmon advocates say they, too, like farmers, are arguing for land viability for a crop.

“Our crop just lives in water instead of on land,” Bizyayeva said.

Finding common ground

Bizyayeva said tribes are committed to working with surrounding communities on habitat restoration. She is disappointed with the divisive rhetoric of “tribes versus the agricultural community” on this issue, and said they are hoping to work with all stakeholders affected by the legislation.

“Unfortunately, this session just went by so fast and we didn’t really have much of an opportunity to engage with everyone, maybe, as we could have,” Bizyayeva said.

Likkel was also disappointed by the lack of conversations with stakeholders on the bill’s creation. He said that there was no consultation with the agricultural community or conservation groups, while the agricultural community has been a part of these conversations many times previously.

“It would have devastated the farming community, it really would have been a minimal help, especially here in the lowlands, for salmon. It wasn’t well thought through at all,” Likkel said.

Habitat as key to salmon recovery

Despite legislation not moving forward, Lisa Wilson, Lummi Indian Business Council member, said in testimony, “the state needs to do its part to restore and protect habitat.”

For Bizyayeva, the priority still needs to be on habitat.

“What we’re hoping to see is more funding for state agencies who can scientifically determine and illustrate how to productively accelerate restoration, protection and management of habitat alongside our streams,” Bizyayeva said.

Bizyayeva said the Stillaguamish Tribe closed all commercial and subsistence harvest of the Stillaguamish chinook salmon, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act, in the 1980s, but they still see low numbers of these fish returning and naturally spawning. 

They’ve limited their tribal membership to five authorized tribal fishers, Bizyayeva said, which is to supply salmon to the community for traditional and religious ceremonies.

“We can’t do anything else in terms of harvest reductions to bring back salmon,” Bizyayeva said.

Camouflaged by its coloring, a juvenile chinook salmon drifts in a clear stream. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

They have two hatchery programs, on the north and south forks respectively, of the Stillaguamish River, which produce 420,000 fingerlings, or juvenile fish, annually.

“The last piece is habitat for our fish, because hatchery fish and natural fish need habitat,” Bizyayeva said. “We know that if salmon survival depended solely on gear restrictions, or harvest productions, or even hatchery production, we would’ve recovered salmon decades ago.”

Bizyayeva said the tribe has spent about $11 million through grant and tribal dollars over the past 15 years to purchase and restore more than 1,600 acres of land. 

In Skagit County over three-quarters of a million trees and shrubs have been planted along creeks and streams on public lands and in private property partnerships.

But this isn’t enough, Bizyayeva said; they’re losing habitat faster than they can restore it.

Voluntary programs like the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) have proven inadequate, Bizyayeva said.

Money, fish and farms

Ron Shultz, director of Policy and Government Relations at the Washington State Conservation Commission which oversees the two programs, said the problem for these programs is a lack of funding.

“In our view, there just has not been sufficient resources in the incentive-based approach to be able to really move the dial,” Shultz said.

CREP is a federal program handled by the Farm Services Administration that provides cost-share resources and leases of 15 years for landowners in riparian areas with salmon bearing streams. This provides financing for the installation and maintenance of trees and vegetation in the riparian corridor. 

The federal government provides 80% of the funding, and state government 20%.

Shultz said the funding has recently declined for this program.

In the past three bienniums, the commission has requested more funding than the legislature has provided. For 2021-23, they requested $7.78 million but received only $4 million. In the previous two bienniums, their request for $7.5 million received $3.7 million and a request for $7.5 million received $4.9 million. 

CREP has seen success, Shultz said. In Walla Walla on the Two Canyon River, 80% of landowners participated and they saw a decrease of 10 degrees in the river.

The VSP is an alternative way for local governments to work on protection and enhancement of critical areas within the Growth Management Act.

“All jurisdictions, all counties have to protect critical areas,” Shultz said. 

But originally, Skagit County exempted agriculture from this. Working on a deal with the environmental community, they came up with the VSP, which allows countries to opt into protecting critical areas under an incentive based approach, as opposed to a regulatory approach, Shultz said.

Twenty-seven of the state’s 39 counties opted in, including Skagit and San Juan counties. Whatcom did not.

The VSP designates a lead entity, such as a conservation group, to organize a workgroup and plan restoration projects, which they report on every five years. The money allocated to a VSP only pays for one staff person per county, not for the actual work of the VSP.

Beyond funding, targeted implementation is key, Shultz said. Identifying targeted areas where improvements are needed for riparian habitat and engaging with those landowners is effective, he said.

Likkel said the state needs to reinvest in these programs, and further incentivize folks to participate in them, instead of making actions mandatory, which Likkel said would result in conflict. 

“When you jam something down their throats, right away, there’s tension and stress,” Likkel said.

Whether voluntary or mandatory, the effects of riparian vegetation on improved water quality and salmon health take time but are rewarding. 

“In 10-15 years you can see a real difference,” said Adam Airoldi, riparian restoration manager for the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group. “You can look at air photos of Hansen Creek for example … east of Sedro-Woolley from 2005 [and from the] present and see visible canopy closure.”

— Reported by Lauren Gallup

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