Worrywart

Anadromous salmonids really push my buttons. I love to think about them, wait on them, watch them, catch them, eat them. I love their prodigal lives—leaving their natal streams to get rich on ocean resources that they transport home when returning to have their children and die. I love the centuries over which human lives have become entwined with the lives of salmon.

Of all the salmon, Coho have become my first love, perhaps because my maternal roots are so deeply grown into the upper reaches of the Coast Range. The fish have co-evolved with the peculiar ecology of the mountains. An important part of that ecology is the fall and early winter deluges that normally fill the filamentous network of small lower order streams that otherwise only murmur through steep-sided forested canyons. Without rain there simply isn’t enough water to make these little creeks accessible to two-foot-long adult salmon. The rains have not come.

Coho need rain and big trees. The storms will come whether the trees are there or not, and when rain falls on unprotected slopes, soil washes into the streams, silting up spawning gravels. In northern California, the Mattole Restoration Council has a “zero siltation” goal for the Mattole River because silt clogs spawning redds, reducing the flow of water through the gravel and decreasing the delivery of oxygen and the removal of waste products for salmon embryos nestled within. So Coho need the water that the rains bring but not the silt that comes with it when the landscape is treeless.

Coho need big trees that fall into the creek and become big logs that break the heavy flow of winter water, providing eddying pools that are refuge from strong currents. Coho fry are chubby and cannot hold their own in fast water as can the more fusiform fry of steelhead and Chinook. Once, the large logs were a constantly replenishing resource, but the trees were taken out during the timber boom of the last century. To make matters worse, well-meaning people have removed down wood from spawning streams, thinking that logs were a barrier to fish passage. So the water has run unabated from the logged-over hills, sweeping Coho fry remorselessly downstream.

Coho need big trees because the fry spend their first year in lower-order streams high in the watershed and need cool water coming from shaded seeps and springs and feeder creeks. Denuded, sun-baked hillsides make for warm water with lower dissolved oxygen. Although reforestation following logging is absolutely required, second growth forests transpire more water per acre than do old growth stands, sending water into the atmosphere that might otherwise have stayed in the creeks. Juvenile fish become crowded into smaller pools where they compete more directly for food and are more likely to be eaten. They do not grow as well, and smaller juveniles are less fit for their journey downstream, less fit for life in the ocean. Our annual summer drought will always bring warmer water, always reduce stream flows, but these effects become exacerbated when trees become two-by-fours.

Coho need big trees. We have finally learned this. But I worry that, despite what we have learned, we change too slowly. Coho need all the things that big trees provide, all in the same place and at the same time. Last September I returned from Charleston by following Weatherly Creek north from the lower Umpqua River, over the ridge and down Big Creek to Upper Smith River. I thought this would be a scenic route home, but it became a harrowing trip through thousands of clearcut acres covered with small fir seedlings all less than ten years old, interspersed with broadleaf species scorched brown by herbicides. Bare slopes were punctuated with landslides. The devastation continued down Big Creek on the Smith River side until finally, on lower Big Creek and within a few miles of Smith River, the road entered a mature forest.  In those last few miles, Big Creek dribbled from pool to pool several feet beneath a series of large logs that had been felled at regular intervals across the stream in what was clearly an effort at fish “habitat restoration.”

Are a few down logs better than none? Yes. And at least someone is paying attention. Still, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or cuss, so I chose all three. The upper reaches of the watershed had been devastated by logging that had removed truckloads of trees. Now the late summer water was being evaporated and transpired, and the water that was getting into the creek had been warmed by the unshaded sun. In a few months winter rains would carry soil off the open hills into the creek, silting up spawning gravels. Can all of this destruction be mitigated by a few logs felled into the creek? Did I mention that that Coho need big trees?

***

The gray skies of Christmas Day finally sent the gift of rain. Several inches of it slashed downward in windy sheets throughout the following week, streaming off the hills in muddy torrents. But the storms soon stopped and were replaced the following weekend by unfamiliar winter sunshine. At predawn I drove deep into the Coast Range. Tangerine and pink fingers of light caressed the eastern ridges while a blood orange moon slowly sank behind the black western skyline.

I stopped to pick up Jerry, and we made the trip to Bear Creek. Yellow shafts of sun slanted through ancient fir, hemlock, and red cedar as we picked our way through the understory of twisted jade green trunks of vine maple. After high water, the stream was now only a narrow ribbon of water a few feet wide, burbling within its bed of sandstone. In a small pool of milky water beneath my feet a battered pair of Coho fanned in the gentle current, the hen and buck each a collage of tattered whiteness and colors of this morning’s sunrise.

Do I worry too much?