Opinion

Every bit of salmon habitat is important | Being Frank

Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. - Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
— image credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

I’ve been talking a lot lately about the connection between salmon, habitat and treaty rights. That connection is pretty simple.

No habitat equals no salmon. No salmon equals no treaty rights. And no treaty rights equals a breach of contract between the tribes and U.S. government.

It is the U.S. government — not the state of Washington – that has the responsibility to recover salmon in western Washington. It’s also up to the federal government to protect and uphold our treaty rights.

We believe that one of the best ways to do that is by coordinating federal agencies and programs designed to protect salmon and their habitat.

A good place to start is with the dikes and levees that allow construction in floodplains that really shouldn’t be developed. They call them floodplains for a reason. When you build in a floodplain, you are going to get flooded. It’s only a question of how often and how bad the flooding will be. Dikes and levees lead to straight rivers with high-speed flows and little to no salmon habitat. They destroy a river’s ability to spread out and move naturally along its path, which makes flooding worse, leading to even more damage.

Dikes and levees may be good for development, but they are bad for salmon habitat. I’m not saying that all dikes and levees should be removed. Floodplain management that is good for salmon can also be good for flood control. In fact, with the proper vegetation, levees could make a small contribution to salmon recovery.

Salmon need cool, clean water to survive. In healthy river systems, trees and shrubs along the banks help keep temperatures low. But when dikes or levees line a river, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says most of that vegetation must be cut down. The corps has started enforcing that rule all over the country.

It’s a one-size-fits-all approach that might work on the Mississippi River, but is out of place here in western Washington. Some people say the corps is simply trying to cover its bases following Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out much of New Orleans a few years ago.

Despite the huge cost of clear-cutting trees and plants on levees, there hasn’t been any kind of study to find out whether vegetation actually weakens them. In fact, many scientists believe the root systems help make levees stronger.

Meanwhile, tribes have been finding creative solutions that help protect property and restore salmon. The Nisqually Tribe has spent the last few years building logjams on the Mashel River, a vital salmon tributary to the Nisqually. The logjams replaced a levee made of riprap and are doing an excellent job of protecting two city parks and a home.

The old riprap levee made flooding worse by increasing the speed of the river. Now, the river moves more slowly and is a much friendlier place for salmon and people. The tribe and community volunteers have planted hundreds of trees and shrubs along and on top of the logjams, providing important shade for salmon in the Mashel.

Salmon recovery is not easy. It never has been. Unfortunately some federal agencies and programs make it harder than it needs to be. It’s sad that salmon habitat in our rivers has declined to the point that levee vegetation is something to fight about, but we have to do everything we can to protect what little habitat we have left.

— Billy Frank Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Members include the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe.

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