What is Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and how did it get started?
Our organization is an independent non-profit that is dedicated to salmon recovery and engaging our community in that process. Here in the Pacific Northwest—and specifically Whatcom county—we care about salmon. They are culturally important, environmentally—as an indicator species—and economically. As salmon runs have declined, some on the brink of extinction, we believe that we have an obligation to help save salmon. We also believe that the only way we can do that is by engaging our community to find a win for both salmon and people.
Why are salmon runs in decline? What is the cause of that?
Well there are lots of reasons.
There is an impact that we have on salmon habitat in the freshwater systems. Deforestation create erosion which means there is more sediment in the streams, which means salmon can’t pass water through their gills effectively so there is a lower survival rate for the fish that are in the streams. A big example is a dam that create fish passage barriers but there are also smaller examples. A little culvert which doesn’t seem like that big of a deal but they do block fish passage. When you add them up there are thousands here in Whatcom county and if each one blocks half a mile or a mile of habitat then we’ve got thousands of miles of stream that could help produce more salmon but aren’t accessible to those salmon.
So what is the bulk of your work?
Our organization focuses on habitat restoration to benefit fish but also to benefit people. We are always looking for win-wins. We work hard to be an apolitical organization. That means that we work with landowners all over the county who have a creek on their property that could include salmon habitat but and have a problem that habitat. And sometimes if a culvert is a fish passage barrier then it is most likely also causing the landowner other problems. There may be flooding or erosion. If we can go in, take out that culvert and replace it with a bridge using grant funding it is a win for the landowner and a huge win for the salmon.
Is it more common for landowners to approach you the other way around?
Our organization is twenty-five years old. Our project manager has been with us for nineteen or twenty years. He know the watersheds and streams, the landscape around Whatcom county very well. We’ve also done a lot of habitat surveys and land assessments and have applied a lot of good science to learning what we know at this point about habitat needs and priorities. So, I think that we have a pretty good idea about many of the problems. When we know about a problem, we do reach out to the landowner to see if we can find a win for the owner as well as a good solution for the salmon.
Yet on a regular basis we do still get calls from people that we don’t know and weren’t on our radar. Often they are simple problems. For example someone will say, “I have an invasive plant on my property and I want to take it out and plant some native vegetation. How can I do the best job possible?” Those are great opportunities to help people too. So we do a little bit of both. We do outreach on projects that we know about but we also try to respond quickly and efficiently to every landowner that reaches out to us because we do see ourselves as a community-based organization. We are volunteer-driven and we want to be responsive to any landowners who want to volunteer their time, energy or property to do something to benefit salmon.
So how did you get involved?
I was an undergraduate geology student at Western. I went on a field trip to see a stream restoration project and I was blown away!
Help me understand the path from geology student on a field trip to executive director.
When most people think of geology they think of mining, extraction, oil and fossil fuels. There is another branch of geology called fluvial geomorphology. That’s the study of how moving water changes the landscape and how the landscape changes the way that water moves.
I was attracted to that for two different reasons. One is that it the one branch of geology that happens on a human timescale instead of on a geologic time scale and I am an impatient person. Also it’s a branch of geology that allows us to give back to the environment rather than taking from the environment. So after I learned about the organization I volunteered my time as an intern, then as an Americorp member. After that I was offered a part time job which became a full-time job with increasing responsibility over the years.
So are you a native Bellinghamster?
No, I am not.
I moved to Whatcom county in 1990 not for Bellingham but for Mt. Baker.
For the skiing and snowboarding?
Yes. That was my primary focus for the first ten years I spent in Bellingham.
Do you ski or snowboard?
And do you do that often?
Yeah, that’s still a huge anchor for me.
What else have you discovered since living in Bellingham? Are there other recreational avenues or other parts of culture that you’ve discovered since living in Bellingham?
Oh there is so much about living, working and playing in Bellingham. I really appreciate the access to open space, the trail system, and the green space. Being in a University town brings performances and presentations and speakers that a town of this size wouldn’t normally get. Being so close to the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack tribe gives a cultural diversity that a lot of towns this size don’t get. Being close to Vancouver and Seattle gives us proximity to the major international airports, the convenience big museums and science centers, cultural experiences, and restaurants.
In the ocean and the mountains we have a vast wilderness on either side of us.
So, yeah. Probably what everybody else says.
So what does Bellingham need? What do we not have enough of?
Gosh. I am such a glass more than half full kind of person it’s hard for me to think critically about that.
I hear that more family wage jobs are needed. There are so many people who find this community through a variety of ways and don’t want to leave. Some of them take their master’s degrees and go work at a coffee shop. I think that there is an incredible wealth of knowledge and dedication from people in our community who are intelligent motivated and really love this place. I think that it can be a challenge for people—particularly couples—to find rewarding jobs in this area.
So do you get downtown very much?
What’s your favorite spot downtown?
There are great restaurants that come and go. There are certainly some eating and drinking establishments that have become institutionalized. But I think some of the things I like to do downtown the most are walking along Whatcom Creek—through Maritime Heritage Park and seeing salmon coming up into Whatcom Creek, maybe walking along the waterfront and up Sehome Arboretum. The network of trails that connect downtown with the adjacent communities are great.
That’s seasonal right? Is it fall when the salmon run?
Yes. one of the largest Chum fishery in the state is at the mouth of Whatcom Creek. Maritime Heritage park turns into an absolute fishing mecca. It’s a place where even people who aren’t fishing can see salmon in the heart of a city. And that’s a pretty cool thing.
Have you guys done much work on the creek there?
We have and the city of Bellingham has done a lot. Particularly after the 1999 Whatcom Creek pipeline explosion. There was a huge amount of damage done. There was also a fund set up to restore some of the damage done. A lot of that restoration happened from Whatcom Falls park all the way down to the freeway and has continued even further downstream since then.
Salmon restoration sounds like a massive job. How do you fund something like that?
You write a lot of grants.
Funding for any non-profit organization is a huge challenge. Our organization is no exception. The majority of our budget comes from grant funds. The majority of those grants are state and federal though there are some private organizations that support the work that we do as well.
It seems like there is a lot of cultural attention or momentum on salmon enhancement at the moment. Do you have a sense of why it has been in the front of people’s mind so much lately?
As some salmon runs have declined and people have started to measure them some of those numbers have resulted in listing them as threatened or endangered. Simultaneous our resident orca population has seen some concern. Orcas have been listed under the endangered species act. We have found that the orca’s diet rely heavily on chinook salmon. As the chinook salmon population is in decline it triggers other issues in the food web.
The fishing community has seen a decrease in the number of fish they are allowed to harvest. There has been an outcry from the fishing community. They are asking why are these numbers declining and what can we do to help.
There have been more resources, particularly government resources directed at salmon recovery. With that has also come some scrutiny and layers to that process.
This year in the news there were debates between Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the tribes about harvest. We weren’t sure whether there was going to be a recreational fishing license for sale in Puget Sound at all. There has been concern in the news about how many fish are coming back and how are adverse ocean conditions affecting the runs that are already in peril?
So in the past ten years as some numbers have declined or we have learned more about the numbers that have already been in decline there has been a cry to save salmon from the brink of extinction. I really do believe we have a chance to keep salmon from going extinct but we are going to have to work together and make some changes to the current trend to make that happen.
So the current trend is still in decline?
Yeah. I think that any recovery process is a roller coaster. With salmon there are so many different variables: harvest, habitat conditions in the fresh water, oceanic conditions in the oceanic phase—there are so many different variables. I don’t think it is easy to see a trend without looking at a large chunk of time.
What is the geographic scope of your work? Nooksack is in your name so imagine the branches of the Nooksack are the focus. Do you venture further south than that?
We are one of fourteen different regional enhancement groups in the state. So there is a different organization like us in Skagit and there is yet another one in Stillaguamish.
Because we are a grassroots, community-based, organization that is dedicated to engaging our community in the process of salmon recovery our work is community based here in Whatcom county. That includes the Nooksack river and creeks that flow into the Nooksack river but it also includes independent drainages that go directly into the marine environment here.
What is the most common misperception about you guys and what you do?
Some think that we are advocacy based, but we are not. There are a number of environmental organizations in our community that do advocacy and in some cases litigation. We work really hard to be apolitical and to work across the spectrum to find solutions that benefit both people and fish.
More shovel, less briefcase for you guys?
Another misconception is that we have lots of money. [laughs] But of course, we don’t. We work really hard to get grant funding to do our projects as does any small non-profit.
What is Nooksack Salmon Enhancement up to right now?
One thing we are working on right now is a capital campaign. For us that is really huge.
What is that campaign focused on?
Focused on building a permanent home so that we have a sustainable future. Our organization has been running for twenty-five years. About three years ago we learned that the long-term lease that we had at a very affordable rate was going to end because the property owner had other plans for the property—very understandable. We had a tremendous amount of gratitude to be there under such favorable conditions for so long, but we realized it was time to find a new home.
So when I was searching for a place that would meet our needs which would include an acre for a nursery and a couple acres to store woody debris, and a shop, and an office space, I realized that fair market value for that would be out of our range. That’s when our board started to look around and say that it is probably more prudent for us to purchase a property rather than to sign a lease. We found property that seemed like it would be a good fit. It was owned by a willing seller who was really supportive of our organization. He gave us about a year and a half to do a feasibility study and to come up with the money for it. He sold it to us at about a third of fair market value and he enabled us to really make our dreams come true. A $1.2 million campaign covers the cost of the property, renovations that are required by the county, our conditional use permit; and renovations that we need to do to make the property functional for our staff, board, and volunteers.
That is where you are now?
It is a beautiful location. I can see that it is still being worked on a little.
It is. We have 125 thousand dollars to go. We’re almost done. Now is crunch time.
Do you have a deadline.
Right now I have an anonymous donor that has pledged 50 thousand dollars if we can match that in six weeks. That will bring us to the finish line. So we are scrambling.
That is exciting and also kind of terrifying.
We have been focused lately on our saturday volunteer work parties in the spring and in the fall.
We do all the prep work, we bring all of the tools, gloves and refreshments. We bring a team to train people. And we engage all types of volunteers to come out to a local creek and plant trees and shrubs along the creek to benefit the health of the creek, the habitat for salmon, and ultimately the air that we breath. It is becoming an iconic Bellingham activity at this point.