Salmon face many challenges throughout their migration to the ocean and back. Forest landowners are removing fish barriers, clearing a path.

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Pacific salmon are an iconic Northwest species, with a powerful instinct leading them from their birthplace downstream to the sea, and then back to their freshwater home stream, where they were born, to spawn. A healthy, connected stream system is essential to supporting the salmon’s life-cycle.

Salmon face many challenges throughout their journey, traveling through forested streams, farmlands, rural and urban areas, and finally migrating through the Puget Sound to the ocean. Their journey may take them more than 1,000 miles, traveling up to 18 miles per day over 2-7 years, before finally returning home to reproduce just one time, to begin the cycle again.

Pacific salmon are anadromous, meaning they begin their lives in fresh water, they must migrate to the ocean as adults, and finally return to their freshwater home stream to reproduce. This ability to transition from freshwater to saltwater is a process known as smoltification, which only a very few species of fish in the world are able to do. Along the way, salmon must struggle to survive by navigating through obstacles, water pollution, dynamic river flows, and predators such as harbor seals. They often fail to get over large spillways or through culverts that are undersized for the drainage area that feeds them. Slicing the odds even further, of the 1,500-10,000 eggs that each female salmon lays, only a few of those eggs, less than 10, will survive to become adults.

“Salmon are important to all of us in Washington,” says Jeff Davis, Assistant Habitat Program Director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They matter socially, they matter culturally, and they matter economically. We must do everything we can to help the salmon survive their arduous and remarkable journey, and complete their homeward migration to start the cycle again.”

Many groups are working together to remove man-made barriers to fish passage to help the salmon return to their home stream. For example, the Fish Passage Barrier Board is working with city, county and tribal governments to make resources available for infrastructure projects that will improve fish passage. They have identified 40,000 barriers across the state that block salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat in Washington. The state Department of Transportation has completed 319 fish-passage barrier corrections, allowing access to about 1,032 miles of potential upstream habitat. The greatest challenge is finding the resources to pay for the thousands of culverts that need replacing.

The most sweeping effort, however, has been made on forestlands to improve road systems and remove fish barriers. With over half the state forested, the salmon’s home stream often resides amongst the trees in the forest. As part of the collaborative Forests & Fish Law — developed with tribes, local, state and federal governments, and forest landowners in Washington — both private and state managers set out on a path to inventory their road systems and fix the “worst first.” They developed a 15- to 20-year schedule for improvement and have now have removed 7,300 fish passage barriers since 2001 across 9.3 million acres of forestland. These landowners have contributed their own money — more than $300 million invested in infrastructure to open up 5,100 miles of historic fish habitat. Private and state forest landowners are 84 percent done with their goal and are on track to clear all the fish passage barriers in forested streams by 2021.

“This is a long-term process to bring the fish back,” says Mark Doumit, Executive Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association. “If you take it in smaller, bite-size pieces, forest landowners have found the problems of replacing fish barriers is doable.”

Many large forest landowners have completed their work ahead of schedule, as recognized by Commissioner Hilary Franz in a celebration praising 43 large forest landowners who completed their road work. Small landowners have success too, through the Family Forest Fish Passage Program assistance program, removing 368 barriers and opening more than 844 miles of stream habitat.

In addition to a clear path for migration, salmon need cool, clear water. The role that private forest landowners play is hard to overstate — leaving trees and vegetation along the banks that provide critical shade for salmon and trout, and setting aside uncut buffer zones along creeks and streams as they harvest timber. This helps keep water cool, and the vegetation keeps soil stable, with less sediment running off into the streams.

These practices are not easy to perform, nor are they inexpensive, but they are making a positive difference in protecting salmon populations that have tremendous economic and cultural value for our region.

The Washington Forest Protection Association is a trade association representing private forest landowners in Washington State. Members are large and small companies, individuals and families who grow, harvest and re-grow trees on about 4 million acres.