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The Forest That Fish Built: Salmon, Timber, and People in Willapa Bay

Wading a creek too small to name, biologist Brian Fransen waves a sort of wand over the water. He bears a robotic-looking backpack that periodically hums, a signal that some little fish are going to have a bad day. Stunned by the wand, they boil to the surface to be stuck in buckets, sorted, counted and weighed. Their stomachs are pumped before they go back to the stream, mostly unharmed.

Brian Fransen
Brian Fransen

This electroshocking of fish in a western Washington waterway is a single and ordinary act of science. Fransen is a fish biologist, part of a broad network of investigators filtering through the streams and estuaries of the Pacific coastal rain forest trying to unravel the central question of the region: What damage have we done to the once magnificent runs of salmon and how might we undo some of it? Yet Fransen asks that question in a specific place, and that context reshapes the search. His research stream is a tributary of the Willapa River, part of the 680,000-acre watershed of Willapa Bay. This context gives his work meaning. In the end, it is more about community than salmon.

Some people argue that these young salmon need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, a contention that snaps Willapa into its broader context. The combatants in the environmental wars of the West are divided by a sharp line. There are regional variations on the theme—people against bears or wolves in the Northern Rockies, people versus owls in the Northwest—but the common thread is drawn from endangered species. For better and worse, that landmark federal law is the Great Divide of the political landscape.

As mental shorthand, the idea of opposition of species can be useful. It sobers and humbles with the undeniable fact that the human economy sentences countless species to oblivion. Like all bits of mental shorthand, however, it can obscure as much as it illuminates. Its power to distort is most evident in an odd assertion one hears: That people are endangered, that loggers or ranchers or a rural way of life are the real endangered species. Can this be so? In no comer of the human range are our numbers declining, a sharp contrast to the plight of most other residents of the planet. Where is the peril to our species? Or might there be some truth in this assertion if we ask questions in the right way or, more importantly the right place?


Willapa has so many blessings it would be hard to rank them, but toward the top would be the accidental blessing that was James Swan. He was a boomer drawn north from San Francisco in 1852 by a crony, Charles J.W. Russell. The two were in the oyster trade, born in Willapa when gold miners' money flushed San Francisco with lavish tastes. Swan, however, had no particular gift for commerce but a great one for observation, and he left a record of the people he found and befriended around Willapa, mostly Chinook Indians.

He called the place an "Indians' paradise," not 19th century romanticism, but rather a hard-eyed assessment of the position of the Chinooks relative to neighboring tribes. By the time Swan met the Chinooks, their numbers had already been decimated by diseases introduced by whites, but those remaining, like their ancestors, were richer than their neighbors, well-fed, peaceful, and leisurely, largely because of overwhelming natural abundance. Central to this wealth was salmon—lavish runs of chinook, coho, and especially chum.

Salmon and oysters still figure in Willapa's well-being, but one can ramble the fishing villages like Chinook, Ilwaco, and South Bend, and wealth is not what comes to mind. Per capita income is well below the average for Washington state, and the gap is widening. As of 1990, 17.2 percent of the families in the county that accounts for most of the watershed live below the poverty line.

There has been a corresponding decline in the wealth of the natural community. Salmon runs have been greatly diminished; most of the remaining runs are sustained by the artificial life support system of hatcheries. This is a reflection of another form of poverty. There is enough in this shared fate of human and natural communities to suggest a link between economic and natural wealth, as of course there must be in a place so closely coupled to the land.


The far western edge of Willapa Bay is the twenty-mile stretch of Long Beach Peninsula that encloses the bay and forms at its south edge the mouth of the Columbia River. The accident that created the peninsula—sands washed down the Columbia in a series of geologic upheavals more than 10,000 years ago—created a treasure. The bay's estuary is among the world's most productive. It shelters waterfowl sanctuaries that are habitat for black brant and provides a crucial staging ground on the Pacific Flyway.

The peninsula also holds a place of significance for the very idea that makes water fowl refuges necessary in our society. At the south edge of the peninsula lies Cape Disappointment, where William Clark and Meriwether Lewis ended the journey they had begun in St. Louis. They spent the winter of 1805-6 just across the river at Fort Clatsop near the site of present-day Astoria, Oregon, then turned around and headed back to report what they had seen. Local historian Noreen Robinson says they were following the same marching orders that would propel legions of westerners behind them: to head west "until your hat floats."

The Lewis and Clark expedition was occasioned by the Louisiana Purchase, in effect an inventory of real estate by the new owners, sizing up the fixtures and furnishings to see what might be moved at a profit. A survey for Manifest Destiny, the expedition began a wave of "settlement" that was to lay out the real legacy of the West, a region at odds with the nature that holds it. The ethic was the very opposite of what we mean today when we speak of sustainability.

Settlers didn't head west until water stopped them out of a bias toward that direction. Rather, the draw of the frontier was made necessary by the fact that everything behind them was used up. The fur trappers, the near extinction of the bison, the gold rushes and the hydraulic mining they spawned, the logging that was to become timber mining, the mechanization of the Columbia River system for hydro-electric dams and irrigation, the widespread overgrazing of rangelands by the cattle barons—all were driven by the cut-and-run philosophy that squandered centuries' worth of natural capital.

The ocean stopped Lewis and Clark and everyone after them, but now this point of land is a beginning, not an end, and a fitting place for it. Some of the people of Willapa, in an effort headed by a local group, the Willapa Alliance are trying to steer toward a more sustainable future for the place. But in doing so, they are accepting no less a challenge than to roll back that set of attitudes that has undermined the natural wealth of the West, to rewind Manifest Destiny.

In Willapa, the primary example of unsustainable exploitation of the land was and is logging. Elsewhere, especially on the nearby Columbia River, dams choked the salmon runs, but Willapa's isolation avoided that. The 88,000-acre bay fingers into a series of streams all coastal and forming a discrete watershed roughly held by the borders of Pacific County, but its key land use decisions are not made in the county seat of South Bend or any other local community. They are made in Tacoma, headquarters of the timber giant, Weyerhaeuser Co.; and to a lesser degree in the headquarters of a half-dozen other major corporate timberland owners and the state of Washington, who manage large areas of commercial timberland in the basin.

Nearly 90 percent of the 600,000-acre drainage is in private and state tree farms. Weyerhaeuser is by far the largest single owner, holding 47 percent of those tree farms. The industry leaves a heavy footprint on the land. Each square mile in the watershed averages about five miles of logging roads, close to three miles of streamside roads and roughly fifteen stream crossings. Of the six heavily logged drainages, the North, the Willapa, the Palix, the Nemah, the Naselle and the Bear, almost 18 percent of the total land area is at high risk of landslide. Less than 2.5 percent of the land in these six drainages could be called old growth.

Spawning salmon once homed to the headwaters of streams like the Willapa using hyper-refined senses. Humans today locate these same headwaters using logging roads and monitoring CB radios up twisting turns of gravel to avoid collisions with a parade of mill-bound logging trucks. All the way the roads wind along streams knee-deep in sediment winnowed to its banks. Skidding towers dot the horizon and signal whistles cut the afternoon air.

All of this did in the salmon. Sediment silts up their spawning beds beyond use. Loss of streamside vegetation warms waters and robs their ability to hold oxygen. Debris and road culverts render streams impassable to migrating fish. This wave of destruction has built in Willapa since the 1850s and at times was even more damaging to the habitat than it is now. From about 1883 until 1940, loggers floated out logs by building temporary dams, filling the backwaters with logs, then breaching the dams. The structures, called- splash dams, each created mini-catastrophes of sediment roaring down watersheds.

Key to the Willapa Alliance's effort is restoration of the natural wealth of salmon, but any strategy to create a future for the fish must first face this history. Logging is one of the community's realities.


Bob Lake is a gillnetter, a professional salmon fisherman, but spends most of his days now threading his Chevy C-10 pickup through the web of logging roads. He heads a crew of out-of-work fishermen hired with federal money to survey and help restore ravaged streams. On such a trip he ticked off a list of those he blames for the demise of the fishery and his livelihood, which could mostly be distilled to a collection of one: the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. There's cause for some of that anger. As we shall see, state policies need to shoulder some blame, but all around his pick-up that day were clearcuts, landslides, roads, and sediment-choked streams, and Lake not once singled out the loggers for blame.

"The bottom line is, there are too many people preying on too few fish," he said. "Let's not point any fingers. If you point a finger then pretty, soon you've got three pointing back."

Lake then launched a discussion one hears often in Willapa: that, yes, logging has created some problems, but the methods are improving and Weyerhaeuser is trying to do a better job of protecting the fish. There are grounds for this assertion, but as Lake spoke, I was thinking of a clearcut I walked a few days before near the Willapa-Naselle divide. A small pool, Lost Lake stood in a square mile of clearcut, some of it freshly logged old growth. The lake's surface was barely visible under debris, giving a logger's twist of irony to the name "Lost Lake." Fresh stumps stood within thirty feet of a live stream, and a single wan row of trees stood as the creek's only "buffer" against the clearcut. Much of the cut was just a year old; egregious logging practices are not history, as loggers often claim.

I pressed Lake about this, and he still declined to blame the loggers as his pickup pulled onto a live cut. Toward the top of the hill loomed a skidding tower, a Skookum Tyee. (Its brand and model names are borrowed from Chinook words: "Tyee" means chief. "Skookum" is powerful, but once referred to a place occupied by an evil god of the woods.) Lake tells me his neighbors are loggers and he understands them. He himself has set choker and felled.

"I've done all the jobs in logging too," he says. Pressed further still, Lake will only say there is simply no point in entering a political battle one cannot win. Politically, industrial logging is the proverbial 2,000-pound gorilla and it sleeps where it wishes.

Allen Lebovitz was raised in the East, a biologist by training, Yale School of Forestry, but has been in the watershed two years spearheading the Willapa Alliance's fisheries recovery program. He had been with me that day on Lost Lake and called it the saddest sight he had seen in all of his wandering the ups and downs Willapa. Then I repeated for Allen a charge I'd heard others make, that the Alliance was being too timid with logging corporations, was in effect ignoring that gorilla.

"We've tried it the other way. We've tried the head-on confrontation. What happens when you take on the 2,000 pound gorilla? You get slapped around pretty vigorously," he says. "Frankly, they own the majority of the watershed. They own it outright. Lock, stock, and barrel… If you want to work with private industry, private property, it's their game, and you do need to play by some of their rules. At the same time that doesn't keep you from trying to win."

Besides, Lebovitz and others working in Willapa say Weyerhaeuser has been both more responsive and progressive than all other logging companies and the state in trying to undo some of logging's damage. Untangling any problem requires some examination of its causes, but this is less a story about assigning culpabilities than a search for possibilities.


The simple and true answer is that the legacy of logging has sapped the salmon that were Willapa's heritage, but the story is far more layered, first with problems from logging and overfishing and later with problems created by "solutions." Beginning as early as 1899, hatcheries began trying to make up for productivity lost to logging. Like many solutions, this one, morphed into a problem in its own right.

Willapa's salmon fishery today is almost completely supported by the watershed's three hatcheries on the Naselle, Nemah, and Willapa Rivers. Although an active program stretches back to the turn of the century, the heavy meddling dates to the 1950s, following a post-war logging boom, and perhaps more importantly, post-war hubris. Hatchery production has increased about tenfold since 1950. By 1990, the three facilities were hatching about 35 million eggs a year and releasing about 15 million fish. In 1989, the hatcheries ceased releasing chum salmon, now turning out only coho and chinook and some trout.

Ed Maxwell, the state's affable manager of the three hatcheries, is among those placing the blame for the salmon's demise on loggers.

Ed Maxwell
Ed Maxwell

"Take a drive up there and look at the road failures and the big clearcut hillsides that slide into the river. It doesn't take an expert in fisheries to tell where the mud's coming from," he says." The timber harvest is causing the trouble. It's hard to get people to admit that."

But he allows there is blame his agency can shoulder for the damage to Willapa's ecosystem that stems from early-day ignorance of the genetic sophistication of fish. Scientists are only beginning to appreciate the enormous degree to which evolution has fine-tuned salmon to survive the particular conditions of a given stream. It is not true that a fish is a fish, nor that a chinook is a chinook, nor even that a Nemah River coho is a North River coho. Conditions such as runoff timing and volume, migration length and timing of spawning vary from drainage to drainage. Each drainage places particular demands on its inhabitants, and natural selection has left local populations matched to those demands.

Because none of this was understood in the 1950s, the state moved fish long, and now by everyone's admission, inappropriate distances.

"There was no real concern for wild fish at all," says Maxwell. "They didn't understand about genetics and how unique different stocks really are."

Willapa's legacy now includes genes from the Green, Dungeness, Simpson, Satsop, Humptulips, Deschutes, Trask, Elk, Klickitat, Elkmoin, Abernathy, and Soleduck rivers as well as streams that drain to the Hood Canal. With the artificial boost from hatchery feeding, these fish often could outcompete natives during certain cycles, further suppressing natural runs.

Further, more subtle problems than genetics rippled through the system. Partly because the hatchery fish were ill-fitted to the system, they have a low survival rate, a particular problem for chinook. From 1982-84, an average of 0.72 percent of chinook fry survived to return as adults. About 4 percent of coho survived during same period.

Maxwell says the hatcheries adjusted for this by simply turning up the volume. If only one percent survived, as opposed to say, ten percent, no problem. The hatcheries would simply release ten times as many young fish, and ten times as many mouths to feed, competing with an already suppressed population of natural spawn. The more-is-better idea was an article of faith, and fisheries biologists admit there wasn't a clue as to what all these extra fish might eat. There still isn't.


Kathleen Sayce lives in a 19th century house near the peninsula village of Nahcotta, one built by Swedish pioneers and later renovated by her stepgrandfather and grandmother. Her book-lined living room's windows look onto Willapa Bay, which is to say her laboratory. Sayce is an unusual sort of biologist, one who picked a subject and a place before she picked a job. Her choice however was biased on that she was raised in Nahcotta following her father's work in marine biology.

"I grew up...thinking everybody had a saltwater lab in her background," she says.

Once she had finished her formal education, including a master's degree in botany, she came home, because "there was a lot of science that needed doing for the community." Her independent lab now does contract work for various groups and agencies.

In 1992, Sayce began performing an exercise called plankton tows, a simple way of sampling the amount of plankton present in the bay at any one time. Plankton are tiny plants and animals that are the foundation of all ocean life, the first and vast floor of the food chain. Phytoplankton are to the marine world what grass is to the prairie, the way the ocean harnesses the sun's power to support life. Oddly, no one had bothered to routinely census plankton before in Willapa Bay, which is a bit like a rancher who never inventoried his grass.

"Microbiology rules the world, but we know almost nothing about microbiology," says Sayce. Her five year's worth of data show that plankton levels are anything but stable. They fluctuate greatly both year to year and week to week during the summer peak of productivity. This is not an idle question for salmon production. Sayce began her work after being prodded by the example of Bruce Suzumoto, who studied plankton in Alaska's Prince William Sound. He found that by timing release of young pink salmon to coincide with zooplankton peaks, hatcheries greatly increased the survival of the pinks.

"You have ensured that no matter where they go in the estuary, they are going to get lunch," says Sayce.

The hatcheries of Willapa quit releasing chum salmon after 1989 (largely to stop competing with a few remaining natural runs, Maxwell says, but chum are not considered game fish, so have no constituency lobbying for them). Before that, the hatcheries made no effort to key chum releases to plankton production. Meanwhile, natural spawning by chum is a tiny fraction of historical numbers, leaving a big hole in the bay's food chain. This however, is more than an issue for chum. Coho spend just more than a year in streams or in hatcheries before migrating to the bay, and at that point are looking for young chum for lunch. This is their link to plankton.

The food chain is missing links upstream as well. James Swan recorded a clue to the significance of this in the 1850s. Swan, on the Naselle with a group of Indian's taking salmon, recorded among other details that "dog-toothed" or chum salmon were clearly the basis of the bay's wealth.

"From the last of August to the first of December these salmon come into the Bay in myriads, and every river, brook, creek or little stream is completely crammed with them, and late in the fall the banks of the rivers are literally piled up in rows with the dead fish killed in attempting to go over the falls."

Swan also reports that he tired of catching these fish, and being a proper Eastern gentlemen, went upstream to catch trout on flies. He got skunked only to return to find the Indians reeling in boatloads of cutthroat trout using salmon eggs as bait.

"I found that flier were of no account among these wild fish. They had not learned the ways of a civilized state of society."

Swan's observations are key to Brian Fransen's work. Fransen, a Weyerhaeuser fish biologist, spent the 1995-96 winter following the decay of dead fish. On a stretch of stream, he anchored a pile of salmon carcasses obtained from a hatchery. These carcasses would normally be "piled up in rows" in the stream if natural spawning occurred, but are supplanted now by the hatchery program. Then he compared growth rates of salmon and trout fingerlings there to rates on a stream with no carcasses. Not only coho, but chinook, steelhead, and cutthroat trout all grew much faster on the carcass-laden stream. In the fall, young fish fed on carcasses and newly-laid eggs. Then, later in the year, the young fish showed a strong preference for eggs, especially in the winter and spring when other nutrient sources were dormant.

"You just look at the fish, and they're like little Goodyear blimps swimming around. They're full of eggs," he says. "We're finding when there is natural spawning going on that our stomach samples show a high degree of utilization of eggs and fry; we even found alevins (young fish) somehow being gotten out of the gravel by fish."

Fransen's work, while supporting other similar experiments in the Northwest goes further in getting at the basic issue of the salmon's role in feeding the system. Carbon and nitrogen produced in the ocean have stable isotopes distinct from those same elements when they are derived from freshwater and land. Since carbon is the basis of life, this allows him to trace the ocean's productive power as it moves upstream.

He found that as much as 60 percent, and an average of 40 percent of the carbon in tissue from young fish that had never seen the ocean was built of ocean-derived elements. But it does not stop with fish. A sample of salmonberries, a bush that grows at streamside, showed that 18 percent of their nitrogen came from the ocean, giving a new significance to the plant's name. They are literally built of dead salmon.

At certain times of the year, as many as twenty vertebrate species, including deer and elk, feed directly on salmon carcasses, cycling those nutrients further into the landscape. The natural community has an economy built on its members, all meshing together like a series of gears. Remove one gear, and the machine stops turning. It loses its power. All who rely on this productive power, including humans, become impoverished in the process.

Life flows both ways. The forest raises the salmon, but the salmon also raise the forest. This mutual dependence is the very definition of community, and in the end, the heart of the matter.

The fish leave the bay's web of streams no larger than a fat pencil and disappear into the ocean for three to six years. They return weighing up to sixty pounds, all biomass, the fat of the land, harvested from the sea. Salmon are traders, importers, bringing this mass of life back into the forest to feed it and, in the meantime, feed their next generation.

Or at least they did, until hatcheries taught these fish "the ways of a civilized state of society."


Those thinking Weyerhaeuser is lacking in commitment to solve some of the problems its logging has caused need to consider that Fransen and several of the most respected fisheries biologists in the region cash paychecks bearing the corporation's logo. And those thinking Fransen is deliberately steering his research toward an anti-hatchery argument to take the heat off logging's destruction of streamside habitat need to hear him out. This nutrient cycling is not a matter of carcasses alone.

"Habitat and spawning are equally important. Without the quality habitat the spawning salmon carcasses tend to drift downstream. The debris functions to trap it and hold it on the site where it's available to fish and bugs and critters to access," he says. "If you just have good habitat without the spawning then your food resource is going to be less than it would be otherwise. Really to get the highest productivity of a stream you have to have both present at the same time."

There is a long history of wrestling with this issue of habitat provided by woody debris. Straight-channeled and scoured streams won't trap the gravel fish need to spawn. This much has been known for quite some time, so various agencies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars anchoring log jams with cables to replace the natural debris an unlogged, old-growth forest would provide on its own. Everyone assumed this is was a good thing.

"We'd made such a huge investment in the Northwest in in-stream structures, and when it gets right down to it, a handful have been monitored, so we don't know very much about how well they're working," says Pete Bisson, a Forest Service fisheries biologist and one of the region's leading experts on salmon.

Recently, however, some monitoring of results on Oregon's Clackamas River indicated something is wrong with the assumption that streams could be artificially rebuilt. Says Bisson, "There doesn't seem to be any indication from the fish data that we're seeing any big increase in the returns of adults or the production of smolts. That's not to say these things are not working or they're no good ... but they're obviously not having a major effect."

Charley Dewberry thinks he knows why, and much of the answer boils down to cables. Dewberry does his work on Knowles Creek, a tributary of the Siuslaw River on the mid-coast of Oregon. His research says there is more to this than just pumping out fingerlings from hatcheries or increasing natural spawners, either one. Dewberry studies fish by diving, snorkeling in coastal streams to give himself a fish's-eye view. Under water he noticed something curious: juvenile coho on the Siuslaw were smaller than they should be. They were stunted by a lack of food, despite the fact that coho populations in the system were about 1 percent their historical levels. This implied there was well less than 1 percent of the food there once was.

He dove some more, especially observing a stretch of stream in old growth and came up with the notion of a stream as one big digestive tract. The key to the process is holding water pools along the stream's route. This in turn traps organic material, such as decaying leaves, which in turn draws insects that eat that material. Young salmon eat the bugs.

These old-growth pools, however, are different from the cable-anchored structures in a key way. Dewberry says natural pools are dynamic. All pools age, and as they age, they stabilize and lose their ability to digest material. Dewberry says any fly fisher understands this immediately by remembering that the first few years of a new beaver pond's life produce tremendous fishing, but it wanes to nothing as the pond ages.

We have known since Heraclitus told us in 500 B.C. that we never step into the same river twice, but still we fail to realize the literal truth of this, that rivers are dynamic and alive. We fail to restore them if we do not allow them to change. Nature accomplished this with large, old growth trees that died and fell into streams then came to rest against other trees. These structures would create a series of flats or pools along a run of stream.

"I think of these flats as a series of beads on a string," says Dewberry.

This array, however, was only waiting for catastrophe. In fact catastrophe is what makes it work through periodic, massive, sweeping floods, such as those in the spring of 1996. The floods break loose some of these huge logs and roll them downstream, but not far, resetting the series of ponds and revitalizing the whole system. Ponds are reborn and begin digesting again.

Dewberry did an experiment on Knowles Creek by building mostly unanchored debris dams out of very large logs. Before restoration, smolts were typically eighty-five millimeters long. After, they were up to double that size at the same age, hearty smolts with a head start on the competitive world downstream.

Unlike many biologists, Dewberry doesn't worry much about the sediment from landslides, logging roads, and clearcuts in the long run. He points out that salmon evolved as the glaciers were receding, a period when there was far more erosion and lots of catastrophe. He contends that a healthy stream channel with its normal load of large woody debris and a protective flank of mature conifers can digest a lot of flood-borne sediment. The key, he says, is conservation of old-growth riparian vegetation where possible, and re-establishing mature conifers along streamsides where necessary.

Dewberry has a simple plan for rebuilding the salmon runs, radical in that it makes no mention of in-stream work. Rather, he recommends:

It is not a scheme of quick fixes, in that he believes there is no substitute for big trees: "You've got to get the conifers coming back," he says. "We're going to have to wait decades."

I remember now that fresh stump within thirty feet of a spawning stream in that Weyerhaeuser clearcut. Current forest practices laws fail to protect all fish-bearing streams, and existing standards are not always enforced. Yet if Dewberry is right, the relatively small strip of land that borders flowing water has an enormous amount to do with Willapa's health.


The importance of Dewberry's ideas extends beyond the trees though, in that he points to a. view of nature that is unsettling but necessary. He speaks of the creative forces of upheaval and catastrophe. Stability is not normal; change is. The riparian community is a culture of sorts, and its resiliency absorbs the shocks of this upheaval. Once culture is lost, so is resiliency, and one does not rebuild it overnight, an understanding one can reach over a cup of coffee at Les and Frances Clark's kitchen table.

The Clarks stand in a long fine of gillnetters. Les is the fourth generation, his sons the fifth, to fish the Columbia. His father fished until he was eighty. When Les is not fishing, he takes his morning coffee with his parents, who also live in the town of Chinook. Les is sixty-seven and fishes his thirty-two-foot stern puller, a custom-made craft he calls his "dreamboat," all alone. Once he made most of his living in the Columbia and around Willapa Bay, but the fishing is depressed, so he travels to Alaska for seasons there, taking 95 percent of his income more than a thousand miles away.

There was a short gillnetting season on the Columbia River in late February of 1996, and it netted Clark one salmon and a story that serves as a parable of our times, a sort of reverse loaves and fishes:

“We just had a three-day fishery. I did catch one salmon so we're going to have fresh salmon to eat. My youngest son—he didn't catch any. And my oldest boy—that's his boat out here on the trailer—he didn't go fishing. He wasn't gonna waste any time putting the boat in. So I cut off a couple of slices for him and a couple of slices for the oldest girl and a couple slices for the youngest girls and some for my dad and mother, so it didn't last very long."

Living with the river has taught Clark these new rules.

"We're supposed to be smart people on this planet, and I don't think a lot of them have been very smart in the way we've managed everything. Everybody thought there's not a limit to everything and we can do this forever. We're finding out there is a limit to everything. I don't care how good it looks there's still a limit. It will only stand so much."

In his mind, the salmon have already stood a lot, and he's seen it on the Columbia.

"When we first moved here paper mills dumped everything in the river. It finally got so bad you couldn't pull the net up out of the river it would be so plugged with pollution out of the paper mills. It would grow like jelly. Sometimes you'd get half a net in the boat and it was like it was full of jellyfish. The boat was ready to sink. You'd have to cut the net in half, take it to shore and put it up on the net-rack and go back and get the other half of the net before you lost it."

He does not see his fate as separate from the fish.

"I know as a fisherman I'm dead, but I said those fish have always held me up, and they've always been my way of life. I might not fish anymore, but I can still do something for those fish. I can still be an environmentalist," he says. "You've gotta have faith that those fish will come back."

Clark speaks with a depth of conviction that is not ordinary in our day, but flows quite naturally from long ties to family and place. He is not alone. The fishermen around the Columbia are mostly descendants of Scandinavian immigrants, and will remind you today that four generations understates the case. Many of their families have been fishing for literally thousands of years. Many have intermarried with Chinook and other native families around the bay tying them to a fishing culture that stretches back 10,000 years. There is an old saying among these people that "work is our joy," and where else will we hear that today? If we lose the salmon, we lose more than just fish.

Says Frances Clark of her husband: ''You have to be on the boat with him when he lays that net out and leans back and is completely at peace with the world; I think it's great that somebody could make a living and be happy making a living."

To this Les adds, "To have it all taken away from you after that long a time. A lot of people who just got into it don't understand because they never had all of that, (they haven't) seen what it was before it all went down. But to see how great it really was and then have it all taken away from you. It's hard to sleep sometimes."

This commitment to a way of life is coming to be recognized, even by scientists, as a key to maintaining ecosystems. Writing in the journal Restoration and Management Notes, the biologist Daniel L. Bottom cites a lack of cultural memory as a key reason for failure to restore salmon on the Atlantic Coast.

"I think the history of New England is a warning for the Northwest," he writes. "If recovery of Pacific salmon indeed requires a long-term commitment, and if the depth of that commitment depends on cultural experience, then the will to restore could simply die along with the memories of potlatches, festivals, and family river trips no longer nourished by the seasonal surge of silvers and kings up clear-flowing streams. Stripped of their cultural meaning, the salmon imprinted to Pacific rivers and harvested en route by local fishermen are readily replaced by those fed pellets in distant sea cages and delivered to market by jet pilots. Without the bond of the salmon tradition, Northwestern rivers, forests and fishermen become expendable."

Says Clark: "The day the fisherman is gone will be the worst day for the fish. Without the fishermen fighting for the fish, the rest of them won't give a darn."

There is a story told by an old timer of a particular night on the Columbia, before the days of power boats, when the fishermen lit lanterns at dusk and set nets to drift with the quiet evening tides. From the Scandinavian side, the smell of coffee floated across the river, but it was quiet. This fisherman remembers that from over on the "Mediterranean side" of the river, where the Italians, Greeks, and Croats fished, he heard a violin tuning and then across the calm water came a clear, floating solo rendition of "Santa Lucia."

Culture negotiates upheaval. It is our resiliency.

Les Clark says, "This is an actual fact. The fishermen are actually able to go flat broke for two years, and as long as you can just exist you can go in debt to your eyebrows… I've seen some of those old-timers. They would charge all of their groceries and stuff in the winter. They'd have a huge grocery bill. Big families and stuff in those days and they'd go out on spring season the first week he'd have it all paid for. From then on he was making money. Those fish would come like there's no tomorrow."


The culture and accumulated information of salmon is encoded in genes. The animals' DNA carries a sort of binary code, analogous to the code that drives computers. It is the place where a species records the hard lessons taught by nature, where wisdom is handed from generation to generation. We cannot see it directly, but would like to read it, for in this code is written all those attributes that make this animal mysterious and fascinating.

We have seen how the various species such as chum and chinook interlock their life histories, so that a system is not complete without the range of players. This is interdependence that drives ecosystems, the way evolution fine-tunes life.

The same logic tells us why local populations of a given species are not interchangeable. A chinook from the Puget Sound has different demands placed on it than one from the Columbia River system or one from Willapa. In each of these places timing of migration varies, homing demands are wildly different. Through 10,000 years those individuals possessing the thousands of subtle little tricks survive and reproduce, tuning a community to the idiosyncrasies of its place. Our best evidence of the importance of this storehouse of information comes in the remarkable homing ability of salmon, nature's trick to ensure that a location's store of genetic information stays in that location. Almost all salmon spawn where they were born, no matter how many thousands of miles intervene between birth and death.

Of course, all of this is not altogether straightforward or simple. Fish frequently stray from natal sites. There are mutations and natural catastrophes, which all function like nature experimenting with itself. Most of these experiments fail and animals die; sometimes they succeed, and a tougher strain emerges. But in all, the engine of this creativity is death, which makes genetics a hard-won store of wisdom. It is the legacy of the survivors to ensure survival.

This genetic legacy immediately brings to mind the cultural legacy among fishing people. These two legacies are not mere analogies, but in a real sense, exactly the same: the hard-won skills of survival. None of the fishermen questions the need to preserve human information that forms culture, but among much of the human community the idea of preserving the genetic legacy is controversial. This is a vestige of the can-do hatchery days and of "scientific" land management, when we believed we were free to re-engineer nature to resemble a machine. There are still people who believe a fish is a fish, and that the solution to low catches is to flood the system with more hatchery fish. This is a surrender of power.

A single issue of The Chinook Observer contained adjacent front page stories with the headlines "Federal hatcheries faced with extinction" and "Ilwaco: On endangered town list?" Political winds can sweep away hatchery money in a heartbeat, and abandoning the fate of one's economy to the caprices of those wind's is a surrender of power. It does endanger community. The hatchery at Naselle consumes $9,000 worth of electricity a month, power derived from dams that kill salmon, and in this one sees how odd this transfer of power can become. In all of this, the power resides outside the community.

Unaided by hatcheries and unencumbered by logging, the natural power of the Willapa ecosystem produced perhaps twice as many salmon at the turn of the century. This is what is at stake, what can be lost when we fail to grasp the subtle forces of nature. Communities are endangered, to be sure, by a vast array of forces, but ultimately behind these forces lies a community's own lack of knowledge of natural productive capacities.

This is changing. The observation of the place is causing an evolution in human understanding, which is also how community fine-tunes to its place by refining its information. The parallels in the two levels of fine-tuning—genetics and human learning—are real and direct. In both cases, it is how we attend to the health of our heirs. It is how we take back the power that has been surrendered.

The biologist Pete Bisson says, "It's hard for all of us to think long-term, but in terms of fishermen from Willapa, there are fifth-generation fishermen here just like there are fifth-generation loggers. You guys have been at this for a long time and I assume that you're going to want to have tenth-generation fishers in the Willapa. In order to do that you need to make sure you don't throw away the pieces it's going to take. If you put all your eggs in one basket everybody knows there is a risk to that and the risk is in the form of unseen natural events, unforeseen political events. There's a whole bunch of things that can happen."

Veteran gillnetters like Les Clark understand the value of their years of experience. Some maintain that fishing can't even be taught, that it must be absorbed, the feel of it coming the way a truly talented musician comes to art. No one among them would consider a novice successful who had survived a season of heavy rains and no storms. Information is validated only in the tough years, because the tough years always come. The veterans can survive the storms. They can roll with the punches.

The same is true of time-tested stocks of fish. It is not enough to say a stock has survived "normal" year. An old-timer, a rancher once told me: "I've been here 50 years, and the only normal year we had was two years ago." That's the rule of the West, of nature.

The re-engineering of nature of a generation ago was spawned by a need for stability, yet nature seems to have a way of busting out of those confines; the dams notwithstanding, rivers flood and jump channels. Hundred-year storms come two years in a row. Disease sweeps off excesses. Now, we begin to understand that stability is not the goal; resiliency is. Resiliency is achieved with diversity, complexity, and especially with healthy populations that can survive adversity because their ancestors survived adversity.

An experiment was done on sockeye salmon, a species with tough demands for spawning in that they hatch in streams but spend their first year in lakes. Since those lakes can be either up or downstream from the spawning sites, some juveniles must swim up, some down. The experiment involved removing some eggs from the streams and watching how the young behaved upon hatching. Miles away from their streams and in laboratories, the fish hatched and each faced the separate compass direction it would need to head, if it were in its natal stream.

This is genetics at work. It seems that as humans we ought to be keenly interested in wisdom so powerful it tells the next generation which way it should go.


Much of the controversy in Willapa stems not so much from the value preserving various stocks as it does on an assessment of the bay's reality. Given massive hatchery manipulations of the gene pool, there is some doubt that any wild fish survive. Maybe, says Bisson and other biologists working that system, but the notion of "wild fish" needs refinement. Most work with a different term.

Bisson says, "I still keep hearing... there are no wild salmon in Willapa. I think that's nonsense. There are a lot of naturally spawning salmon in the system and, yes, they do carry some genes that were brought in from populations from outside the system, but I think people tend to underestimate that reality, if a gene that is brought in is not adapted to the local situation, it might persist for awhile, but it will eventually get selected out and I'm not willing to throw in the towel on the idea. There are plenty of wild fish in the basin—and by wild, I am thinking naturally spawning fish."

Much of the Willapa's natural heritage has been lost, squandered even. Much remains, and the developing strategy focuses on the latter. In all my talks on the Willapa I was reminded frequently of a story I learned in the Northern Rockies, that in the early days of fighting forest fires from airplanes, smokejumpers would be ferried to fires in lumbering Ford tri-motor planes. Frequently, these would crash, and there was a saying among these pilots that in the event of a crash it was a pilot's job to survey the hillside, inventory the pieces, then "fly the biggest piece back."


There is a plan for rebuilding the Willapa ecosystem and its natural productivity as expressed in salmon. Spearheaded by the Willapa Alliance and paid for in part by Weyerhaeuser, it is called the Willapa Fisheries Recovery Strategy. It is consistent with what we know today about the problem. It is based on a watershed by watershed inventory and a triage of sorts, in that it targets the best habitat for the first and most intensive efforts to preserve and restore. It emphasizes restoration of streamside vegetation and conservation of naturally spawning runs. It leaves a role for hatcheries in maintaining a commercial fishery and using technology to restore native runs. It accounts for the political realities and pursues the possible.

Interesting, though, is the plan's attempt to appreciate both types of information that drive the system—the accumulated knowledge of the human community and the genetic information of the natural community. Allen Lebovitz, the biologist behind the plan, said there was a conscious attempt to listen to the information of gillnetters.

"One of the biggest preconceptions I came with was science had the majority of answers," he says. "When I got here and had a chance to work on the ground with some of the folks who had lived here all their lives it became very clear that science got some answers, but local knowledge is extremely important. There are things that they (fishers) understand about how this ecosystem functions that (scientists) couldn't get at in fifty years, or may never get at."

Gillnetter Mark Ashley worked directly with Lebovitz on some of the inventories that built the recovery strategy. He spoke about the process, but often in highly cynical tones one afternoon as he showed me a remote site incubator. These are simple barrel devices designed to protect salmon eggs until they spawn, a way to bring hatchery eggs into streams lacking natural spawners and jump-start production. Ashley and other fishermen throughout Willapa have maintained these sites on a volunteer basis for many years. Yes, he admits mistakes have been made with them. Often they are used to raise species inappropriate for the habitat, so fail to start natural runs, at least at that location.

The fishermen have made mistakes, but so has everyone else, the source of Ashley's cynicism. He does not hesitate to talk about the day years ago when state biologists ran chicken wire across certain streams in the valley to prevent natural spawners from returning. The idea then was to wipe out native chum and replace them with a more "desirable" species. His attitude toward much of what he is told is right today reflects that history. He's skeptical. He's heard it all before from earlier generations of scientists who claimed to have answers, and from managers, who often turned a blind eye to science that conflicted with agency goals.

Pete Bisson, the biologist, is normally a thoughtful fellow; he becomes even more so when faced with Ashley's charge. Given this record, why should there be any faith in what is being said by his colleagues today?

"Where is the humility among the scientists?" he asks. "That's a really good point. As scientists, we've sold the public a bill of goods a number of times on these issues, and that's a concern to me, that my generation of fish squeezers doesn't make that same mistake and fall prey to the arrogance of saying that we have all the answers. We don't. If we've learned anything over the last hundred years I guess I'd argue that it's you don't always manage to the edge of what you know. 'Maximum sustained yield' or 'minimum water quality realignments' or at that stuff. That you hedge your bet, and you attempt to plan for the unseen."

Bisson is not saying to Ashley, "Here is what we ought to do because we know.'' He is saying, "Here is what we ought to do because we don't know." This is a fundamental shift in science. There are limits on all things, the realization driving our evolving relationship with nature. How appropriate, then, at the bottom of this to understand there are limits, too, on our knowledge. We are not smarter than nature, and this recognition of our fundamental ignorance may well be the best asset we have in groping toward our future.

Les Clark may be right. The salmon may come back. If they do, it will be on the strength of what we have learned, and by far the most important lesson that Willapa can offer in all of this is a simple one: nature knows more than we do. Appreciating this knowledge is the first step in reclaiming nature's wealth.


Richard Manning is an environmental writer and author of Last Stand (1991), A Good House (1993) and Grassland (Viking, 1995). A former reporter with The Missoulian and other papers, Manning has received numerous awards for investigative reporting and was a recipient of a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He and his wife Tracy Stone-Manning live in western Montana, not far from Lewis and Clark's route across Lolo Pass.

The Forest That Fish Built: Salmon, Timber, and People in Willapa Bay
22 pages
©1996 Ecotrust

Also by Richard Manning

Inside Passage: A Journey Beyond Borders


Copyright © 2013 Ecotrust