Restoration of Habitat for the Pacific Salmon:

An Interview with David Bayles

From the Environmental Review newsletter Volume One Number Eight, August 1994


Wild salmon populations are in serious decline on the west coast of the U.S. south of British Columbia. There are many reasons for the decline of wild salmon populations: dams, loss of habitat for spawning and juvenile fish, hatcheries and overfishing. Historically, efforts to increase salmon production have concentrated on regulating how many adult fish are caught, yet wild salmon populations have continued to decline. We spoke with David Bayles about the Pacific Rivers Council, a not for profit, membership based organization working for the preservation and restoration of aquatic ecosystems. The Pacific Rivers Council can be reached at 503/345/0119, PO Box 10798, Eugene Oregon 97440.

Mr. Bayles, what is the purpose of the Pacific Rivers Council?

DB: Our mission is the protection and restoration of river systems and aquatic biological diversity. We began by using the classic tools of river protection, particularly the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Unfortunately the Wild and Scenic Act protects only a river and lands immediately adjacent to it. We want to make watershed protection the focus of river conservation.  Activities within the watershed affect the health of the stream or river and it cannot be protected or restored independently of its watershed.  You cannot protect the river if you neglect the valley that produces it.

ER: How many members does the Council have and who can join?

DB: We have around 2,000 members. It's a real mix of river conservationists, white water rafters and citizens and professionals who are concerned about rivers and aquatic species. We try to maintain a close relationship with the scientific community. We are trying to close the gap between science and public policy. The findings of river science in the last twenty years are generally not reflected in public policy. We are trying to remedy that.

ER: What is your training?

DB: My training is in the fine arts. I came to the realization of the gap between science and public policy not as a scientific professional but as a person with a concern for the resources. If you read the scientific literature on aquatic ecosystems, and look at the river systems and the public policies that are supposed to protect them - even as a layman - you see the gaps.  
     The Pacific Rivers Council has a conservation biology perspective, that is, in the absence of definitive evidence we think we need to act in conservative ways.
We are not scientists. We are advocates.

ER: What are you advocates for?

DB: We are advocates for the integrity of river systems and aquatic biological diversity where that continues to exist, and for its restoration where possible.
     We have a strategic interest in advocating for public land conservation, not because the biology is different on public lands, but because there are legal opportunities for conservation efforts on public lands that do not exist on private lands. The policy tools that work in a public land effort would not necessarily apply in a private land effort. For example, on private lands we are looking for private market-driven incentives, or market-based opportunities to develop agricultural practices more compatible with river systems and aquatic biological diversity than current practices. There are opportunities that make sense with private land owners that are irrelevant for public lands.

ER: Are you limited to Oregon watersheds?

DB: Our major focus is on the Pacific drainages in the lower forty-eight states. We do not work yet in Alaska.

ER: So you are concerned with Pacific salmon in the southern part of their range?

DB: Yes and no. Salmon epitomize the problems in many aquatic ecosystems in the Northwest. But the issues that concern us do not stop where the range of Pacific salmon stops. Salmon are an indicator and a symbol, but it is the watersheds themselves we are interested in, both the biological and the physical parts of those systems.

ER: In Washington State the salmon fishery is closed for 1994. Why is closing down the fisheries not restoring the salmon runs? Where is the problem?

DB: The tradition of salmon conservation has been regulation of the fishery and reliance on hatcheries. We have done that for decades, and during those decades we have had a continuous decline of wild stocks. The number of adult spawners is frequently not the issue. We have attempted to get more adults back on the spawning beds and that has not resulted in an increase in the runs. We have not acknowledged the role of the natural habitat in sustaining the salmon runs. We have not addressed habitat on their rivers.
     We know the salmon problem is not just a dam or harvest problem because a host of other river related species - tailed frogs, torrent salamanders, west slope cutthroat, bull trout - are showing declines that are consistent with salmon collapse. Salmon are best understood as part of their ecosystem. You cannot save salmon by focussing exclusively on the salmon.
     During the last forty years we have decreased the amount of habitat available to salmon, and the quality of that habitat - by denying access but more importantly by degrading that habitat. The west coast wild salmon populations have in some cases collapsed and in other cases simply continued the pattern of persistent chronic declines.

ER: By denying access, you mean building dams?

DB: Correct.

ER: And by degrading habitat you mean agriculture and forestry?

DB: Yes and the whole range of land uses. The conditions in a stream are a product of land use within the watershed. Salmon habitat is produced by the delivery of material from the watershed into the stream channel where that material interacts with the structure within the stream channel itself. If the rate and pattern of delivery of material - water, sediments and nutrients - from the watershed into the salmon stream is highly disturbed (as it in the overwhelming majority of Pacific Northwest watersheds), it will have adverse consequences on the quality of the habitat for salmon and other river related species.
     On average, streams in the Pacific Northwest are wider, shallower, warmer, and siltier than they were under historical conditions. All those factors contribute to the loss of productivity in the river system for salmon, resident fish, frogs and salamanders and on down the list.
     The loss of habitat started as soon as European colonists arrived here. We started log driving and splash damming and agricultural development and mining along these streams right from the very beginning. Now, most low elevation, low gradient salmon habitat is very highly degraded. That is where our cities and prime agricultural land is. The good quality salmon habitat that remains, is high up in the watersheds, predominantly on public land. High quality salmon habitat on private land is now exceptionally rare.
     Today, public land policy holds the key to the fate of the salmon because it is on the public lands that the remaining nuggets of high quality habitat exist. And  public land policy will determine the fate of those areas. If those are the last steep roadless areas that we log, and then we get a winter storm and we get debris torrents down those streams, we will lose the remaining good salmon habitat.

ER: If there are salmon living in good habitat in the hills and they have to run a gauntlet in the lowlands - dairy farms and gravel pits - to get to the coast, salmon could be doing fine in the hills and those smolts would never get to the sea. [Smolts are one to two year old salmon going to sea for the first time. ed.]

DB: That's correct. You could have good habitat and not have good salmon productivity because of factors other places in the watershed. But you have to be cautious about assuming that habitat is good.  Are all the animals except salmon doing well?  In that case, maybe you have just a migration problem.

ER: It seems to me dangerous to focus on public lands.

DB: An exclusive focus can be dangerous but in general I would not agree. Disturbance in river systems propagates from the top down. If we lose a river from the top down, we will not recover it from the bottom. If we have for example, temperature problems or flow problems or sediment problems that start in the headwaters, we would not expect to be able to recover that system.

ER: You argue that restoration is going to happen more quickly with more success in higher than in lower reaches of the river?

DB: That is right. We expect that restoration will be the most effective where the river conditions closely resemble those under which the salmon evolved, and where the rate and
pattern of delivery of materials from the watershed most closely approximates that condition and where upstream disturbance is not going to change that. Therefore watershed restoration should begin from the top down, not from the bottom up because in general, that is where the good areas are, and because rivers are driven by gravity.  
     The traditional view of restoration is that we should find the worst areas and patch them up. We do not agree with that for several reasons. First of all, it is not yet clear that we know how to restore highly degraded salmon habitat successfully. Second, if the highly degraded habitat is particularly low down in the river system - if we attempt to restore that without getting control of the delivery of materials from the watershed - the restoration will likely be unsuccessful over the long term. And finally, the ability of areas to be recolonized by salmon as they recover, is roughly proportional to the distance that colonists have to travel. For recolonization, reoccupying good habitat, you need to have a source of colonists as nearby as possible. So you should focus restoration activities on expanding areas that are already populated and productive - a concentric expansion approach. There is good evidence for the idea that recolonization is proportional to distance. Long distance recolonization does not work very well.

ER: Doesn't that contradict your idea of restoring or saving the headwaters first? If you have a degraded river system, then salmon have to go farther to get to those headwaters, so in a degraded river you would want to do the shortest distance for them first.

DB: You are thinking of the upriver migration, and I am talking about fry being able to move out from the redds and find good rearing habitat. [A redd is a spawning ground. ed.] I'm assuming in this that we have adult access. Of course if adults are not getting to the spawning areas, then none of this matters to the fish.  But I would repeat that we should concentrate on productive areas first, and these are predominantly on federal lands in the upper reaches of rivers.

ER: Before restoration can begin it seems you need to stop whatever is harming the salmon habitat.

DB: That is right. One of the main things we would like to see in restoration is to reduce the threats to existing productive areas. Areas that are still productive need to be proactively protected, wherever they are, high up or low down in the river system. And before any active restoration, we should first eliminate the sources of the degradation. If we have a watershed that has some highly productive habitats, and if we have a road system in that watershed that is likely to fail in the next large rain on snow event and run the risk of major landslide into the stream, then the first job of restoration would be to repair that road and reduce the threat.
     We would like to have existing landscape threats treated and minimized. Then in the longer term we would like to see recovery of stream function. On the valley floor, the most important ingredient in stream function is the interaction with the stream in its floodplain. If a river is not connected with its floodplain, then the possibility of genuine recovery is remote.
     We want to recover the functional interaction between the stream and its floodplain. This is assuming that we have the watershed safeguarded and a normal flow of sediments, nutrients, and water from the watershed delivered to the valley floor. At that point we would like to see recovery of interaction between the stream and its floodplain and let the stream-floodplain interactions build the habitat.
     That is not the classic approach. The classic approach has been to identify the limiting factor in habitat and build whatever the limiting factor is - whether it is pools or winter rearing areas or spawning gravels or whatever. We do not advocate that approach.

ER: Because it hasn't worked?

DB: It has not worked very well, and it is not likely to work because in degraded river systems it is not likely that there is a single factor that is wrong, and it is not likely that it is the same factor year after year. Cool moist years may present a different suite of problems and opportunities to the fish than hot dry years, for example. In degraded systems almost every element of ecosystem function has been disturbed. We would not expect to fix one of those elements and solve the problem.
     Our approach is that if stream function and stream floodplain interactions are allowed to recover, that will begin to reestablish the complexity and habitat variability that provides different niches and conditions and refugia at all scales that fish need - the fish and all the other aquatic animals. I think there is some heuristic value in thinking about the stream building the habitat rather than humans building it.

ER: Has this approach been tried anywhere?

DB: We have a cooperative demonstration project between us, the Forest Service and Campbell Group who manage timber lands for Hancock Timber Companies, of an attempt at stream functional restoration on the central Oregon coast. It is on a Siuslaw tributary called Knowles Creek. Knowles Creek is a highly degraded, downcut, bedrock stream in which we are trying to reestablish stream-floodplain interactions. We and our partners are two or three years and a couple hundred thousand dollars into that project and tracking it very carefully.

ER: Are there any fish returns there?

DB: They're counting this year's fish (cutthroat and coho) right now. [April 1994 ed.]  

ER: The recovery of stream function in the lowlands is going to be problematic. People have been putting dikes and levies in to manage floodplains in ways that are not desirable for salmon.

DB: That is correct.

ER: People will say it is their property, they paid for it, they have lived on it and now we are telling them that they should let it go back to floodplain and cottonwoods if there are going to be salmon there.

DB: It can be a real conflict but we would like to look at the economic benefits that could come from reestablishing floodplain functions in many of these areas. Not all of those floodplain adjacent or stream adjacent lands are being used for high value economic return now. It is possible there might be a cost effective way of identifying which areas are the most
sensitive, which areas are the most potentially productive for salmon, and begin to identify - not the entire floodplain - but areas, pockets, particular flats that might be particularly productive if they were brought back, and targeting those.
     The premise of your question is correct. There are many stream adjacent and floodplain areas which we will not get back, for economic reasons. So the question becomes, is it possible to prioritize or identify areas where you would get a lot of return per investment if they were returned to natural function?

ER: Economic incentives for people to deal with restoration of salmon habitat involves changes in the way some people live and do business. What economic arguments are you looking at on government owned land?

DB: The main economic argument on federal lands, is the argument of sustainability. If we are to boil it down to logging in riparian areas versus production of salmon (to oversimplify on both sides), the high value trees can only come out once and the salmon can continue forever. [Riparian means streamside. ed.]
     Salmon are the quintessential sustainable resource. If we were to maintain salmon habitat we would, it appears, be able to harvest some proportion of the run forever. That was the case up until about the last one hundred years. Not that there were not some low salmon runs in that time. Some of the early journals record some very bad years for salmon.  But as we know, salmon populations can be highly variable. We expect that.
     The more abstract argument is not exactly a quality of life argument, but is characterized as a second paycheck. Part of the fringe benefits of living in the Pacific Northwest is the quality of the environment. There is a wage differential between the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country in comparable jobs. We accept a little lower wages here because we get this second invisible paycheck in the quality of the environment - and that is not a trivial amount of money. It probably outweighs the size of the timber industry several times over when you consider the region as a whole. There is no question that clean rivers and high water quality and salmon runs are a part of that second paycheck.  The final part is the land use within the public lands. There is a fair amount of taxpayer-borne investment (or subsidy, if you prefer that word) for those activities. There is a very large appropriations budget...

ER: For logging, you mean?

DB: That is right - tax money goes into the preparation of timber sales and building the road system. Taxpayers underwrite public land grazing. One has to wonder whether the taxpayers are getting a good investment there. If the true cost of timber sales and grazing programs, both in terms of subsidies and in terms of lost environmental quality (of lost salmon habitat, for example) - if the true cost were factored against the practice, you may wonder how many of them would still be profitable. For public land grazing it seems clear that taxpayers are not getting a good return on their money.

ER: That means we should be charging more money for timber sales, if we could put a cost on salmon habitat.
Looking at it in that way, habitat may have a high cost.

DB: And a high value.

Copyright 1994 Environmental Review