Buffers of trees and vegetation along streams protect fish habitat.

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Salmon is a deeply ingrained element of Washington state’s heritage and economy. We rely on salmon for food, recreation, jobs and cultural traditions. In the 1990s, Washington salmon were encountering serious obstacles to their survival; wild salmon were disappearing from historic breeding streams and barriers to fish mobility between spawning waters and the sea was a large reason why.

Private forest landowners responded to the threat by entering into collaboration with tribes, conservationists, and local, state and federal government agencies. The hard work done since then – a program of stream buffering, road and culvert repairs, and scientific observation – has been instrumental in reversing the trend to make recovery of these very important fish populations an achievable goal.

Since 2001, forest landowners have removed nearly 6,500 barriers to fish passage, restoring more than 4,300 miles of historic fish habitat. This success has been achieved through significant investments by the state and large private landowners of nearly $400 million through 2016.

A conservation collaboration

The Forests & Fish Law was developed in collaboration with state, tribal and county governments and private forest landowners. This law, one of the largest and most comprehensive pieces of environmental legislation in the U.S., was passed by the federal government in 2006 to protect 60,000 miles of streams running through 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland in Washington. It’s designed to fully comply with both the federal Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act to protect Washington’s native fish and aquatic species and assure clean water compliance.

Washington’s private forest landowners are working with scientists from tribal, state and federal agencies to develop forest practices rules and continually evaluate the latest, best data to ensure the high standards of the Forests & Fish Law are met.

“The key to our success is we scheduled our road inventory and maintenance work over 15-20 years, and focused on the ‘worst-first,’ ” says Mark Doumit, Executive Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association.  “It was easier to plan this out over time, and here we are 16 years later with thousands of miles of roads improved and thousands of miles of historic fish habitat reopened so salmon and aquatic species can flourish in our forests.”

Keeping water cool and clean for fish

The efforts of private forest landowners to protect and enhance habitats for wild salmon include finding new ways of constructing roads and culverts. During the past decade, more than 55,000 miles of forest roads have been inventoried and improved, resulting in nearly 26,000 miles of road improvements, and more than 4,351 miles of fish habitat reopened by removing or replacing 6,454 stream blockages.

Tree planting and harvesting is also crucial to responsible stewardship of the land. Maintaining trees and vegetation in designated buffer zones along streams provides the cool, clean water required for our salmon and other native fish to thrive. The Forests & Fish Law restricts tree harvesting in buffers and on steep, and potentially unstable slopes that could accelerate landslides into a stream creating problems for spawning fish.

Buffers of trees and vegetation along streams perform three important functions in protecting fish habitat. The first is to provide shade to keep water temperatures cool, a necessity for spawning salmon. The second is to act as a filter for clean water. Vegetation along stream banks stabilize soils and filters rain and snow runoff – keeping sediment out of the water.

The third function of buffers comes from mature trees that fall into streams, due to natural causes. These fallen trees and branches, called large woody debris, block and slow flowing water to create pools. These pools are essential resting and feeding sites for juvenile salmon.

The results of buffering and these other efforts are worth the work: cooler streams necessary for spawning salmon, more stable soil and sediment-free water, and allowing naturally fallen debris to form the pools where young salmon can rest and feed in cool, clean water.

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.