The Siuslaw River, its watershed, coastal lakes, and estuary hold one of the last, best opportunities to restore the endangered Coho Salmon.
The Siuslaw River watershed covers a 504,000-acre swath of the central Oregon Coast, originating in the Coast Range and flowing into the Pacific near Florence. Similar to other coastal watersheds, the Siuslaw is characterized by mixed-conifer forests, underpinned by sandstone that gives way easily into landslides with coastal wind and rain storms. Historically, these diverse forests and their natural disturbance patterns made for incredible salmon habitat, distributing nutrients and nesting material, and dropping trees into stream channels to provide refuge.
But after 180 years of disruption, the Siuslaw is in need of restoration. Fortunately, broad, community partnerships have been leading restoration efforts since the ‘90s, brought together by their shared love for salmon and the Siuslaw. And since the river has so few major passage barriers, restoration investments are particularly effective in returning salmon populations to their historic reaches. Today, the Siuslaw holds a powerful example of what’s possible through the combination of community-led, long-term, place-based partnerships and how well-informed investments can have a ripple effect across the region.
Much like other coastal people, the original inhabitants of the Siuslaw have a rich connection to their homelands and waters.
The abundance of the Siuslaw supported an abundance of native languages and cultures for thousands of years, with some sites carbon-dated to the time of the pyramids. Coastal indigenous people lived near the water, on the water, and with the water—a defining characteristic of the region that provided avenues for transportation, the locations for villages and encampments, and critical habitat for gathering traditional foods and cultural materials. Their intimate connection to and knowledge of the Siuslaw is critical to work happening in the watershed today.
When colonial settlers arrived on the Siuslaw, they would have witnessed a salmon run second only to the Columbia. And the forests built by the massive seasonal influx of salmon and other migratory fish, like lamprey, were mighty. Through land theft and forced removal, tribal people were excluded from their traditional village and cultural sites, and the riches of the Siuslaw were diverted to industrial pursuits. Little more than 100 years following settlement—as streams were straightened and scoured for logging and agricultural operations, and unsustainable fishing practices were supported by a proliferation of canneries—salmon populations plummeted, with commercial harvesting banned by 1956.
United by salmon
In 1995, in order to bring collective action toward salmon habitat restoration, community members joined together to form the Siuslaw Watershed Council. In 2000, the Council enlisted Ecotrust’s help in conducting a complete watershed assessment—one of the first to be completed in the state. For 20 years, we have been proud to be part of this place-based partnership. In addition to the Siuslaw Watershed Council, we have worked with the U.S. Forest Service, the Siuslaw Institute, the Siuslaw Soil and Water Conservation District, and the McKenzie River Trust to support the identification, receipt, and coordination of critical funding for a variety of projects, from on-the-ground restoration to storytelling and more. This work and these partnerships spurred a regionwide restoration ripple effect, helping spawn the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative that, for 10 years, brought targeted funding to critical projects in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Stories of the Siuslaw
After more than 20 years of re-meandering streams and restoring wetlands, crafting watershed-based education programs and providing native plants to solutions-oriented landowners, the Siuslaw Watershed Council decided it was time to tell their story and enlisted our team of storytellers, graphic designers, and website developers to help.
Thanks in part to grant support from NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Habitat Conservation, we worked together to create a series of videos highlighting partners and projects throughout the watershed.
Community engagement is critical to the success of restoration projects that often span ownership boundaries. With the Siuslaw Coho Partnership, we created two story maps to aid in their outreach efforts.
The first, entitled Story of the Siuslaw, helps set the social and environmental context for restoration. The second, Restoring the Siuslaw, describes restoration priorities and methods and provides an interactive map for community members to see where restoration projects are being proposed near their homes and properties.
Two decades of partnership
Ecotrust coordinates research to count juvenile salmonids emerging from their redds to understand the population trends in Siuslaw River tributaries and other coastal salmon streams.
Siuslaw Watershed Council contracts with Ecotrust to complete the Siuslaw Watershed Assessment, one of the very first assessments completed in the State.
The Pacific Coast Watershed Partnership is launched with Ecotrust as the coordinator, and the Siuslaw Basin is selected as one of six priority basins in the PNW to receive funding and technical support from the Forest Service through their “Large-scale Watershed Partnership.”
Ecotrust participates in the Fivemile-Bell charette, a three-day camp-out with experts from around the Pacific Northwest to design a restoration plan for the old cattle ranch and return it to prime Coho habitat.
Coordinated by Ecotrust, the EPA awarded $1 million to the Siuslaw Watershed Partnership. The partnership, also facilitated by Ecotrust, brought together the Siuslaw Institute, Siuslaw Watershed Council, Siuslaw SWCD, and the U.S. Forest Service to restore the major ecological functions of the watershed and to build markets for restoration forest products.
Ecotrust helps launch a unique, public-private partnership called the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative. The Initiative was designed to coordinate state and federal investments in watershed restoration and moved these funders from isolated projects to strategic restoration actions in areas of shared priorities and where community support was strong. Rather than spreading resources thinly across a huge geography, our collaboration targeted resources for measurable environmental and economic impact in rural communities in the Pacific Northwest.
WWRI received the national U.S. Forest Service Chief’s Honor Award for innovative collaboration between public and private entities working together to expedite restoration on a regional scale.
Ecotrust publishes a study showing the economic impact of restoration investments in Southern Oregon, showing that 1,020 jobs were created by restoration projects across a five-county area between 2000–2009, and an investment of $64.3 million in 2,350 restoration projects generated an estimated $113.7 to $141.1 million dollars in economic output.
WWRI wins a CLASSY Award, recognizing the Initiative among the most innovative and effective programs in the social sector. This same year, we look at the impact of restoration dollars spent across the state of Oregon, showing that for every $1 million invested in restoration, an estimated 19-24 full-time jobs were created.
After more than 10 years coordinating funding for priority watershed restoration projects, the WWRI concludes, having directed more than $10 million in funding to 169 projects in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, that helped recover more than 6,500 acres of habitat and 900 miles of stream restored. On the Siuslaw National Forest, the WWRI helped at least six projects, including multi-year efforts to restore former cattle ranches in the coastal valley bottoms of Fivemile-Bell Creeks, the mainstem of the Siuslaw River, and the Siuslaw estuary.
With support from NOAA’s Restoration Center, the Siuslaw Watershed Council tapped the Ecotrust team to help tell and share the story of their work through a series of videos, a refreshed website, and new brand identity. The Council honored Ecotrust with the Spirit of the Siuslaw Award for our work on the series of eight short films, featuring the diverse partnership of people and organizations working in the Siuslaw.
Our Forest & Ecosystem Services and Communications teams collaborate with the Siuslaw Coho Partnership to produce story maps that share the social and environmental context for restoration efforts in the Siuslaw and to make restoration plans and locations broadly accessible to curious community members and those whose properties are adjacent to potential project areas.
Coastal geographies are facing immediate impacts from climate change, from more severe winter storms to warmer, drier summers. These disruptions are making their mark, including impacts on water quality and quantity, and increased wildfire risk. And new human use pressures are forming: residential development is on the rise and communities are fielding proposed projects that would impact coastal habitats and livelihoods like the recent Jordan Cove LNG export terminal. We will continue our place-based work to understand these threats and restoration needs, working through partnerships to help communities to adapt and respond.