Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Managing whole watersheds for big fish

The Wild Rivers Coast has the opportunity to become one of the West Coast's most important salmon reserves, a concept that could help sustain human communities and salmon and steelhead populations alike. Anglers, guides and organizations like Trout Unlimited have provided a model with a new conservation initiative—the Elk River Watershed Salmon Emphasis Area.  They articulate a bold vision for the future.
"Managing a whole watershed for big fish is also unique.  But our point is that it will help Oregon's economy whether it involves sports fishing or commercial fishing."
Mike Beagle of Trout Unlimited as quoted in the Medford Mail Tribune describing the Elk River proposal. Read more at Sportsmen for the Elk, or the Medford Mail Tribune.

The two other big fish rivers on the Wild Rivers Coast, the Chetco and the Smith Rivers, have larger watersheds but offer similar opportunities to take a whole watershed approach.  Like the Elk they have a high percentage of National Forest lands within their watersheds, they're free flowing from their headwaters to the Pacific and some of the work has already been done.
About 78% of the 224,700 acre Chetco watershed is National Forest land with about 44% of this within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, with some additional protective land allocations outside the Wilderness. But there's still a lot that could be done to manage the publicly owned part of the watershed as a whole, including the passage of legislation to provide greater protection for the mainstem National Wild and Scenic Chetco that's threatened by instream mining.

Baldface Creek, a tributary of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River in Oregon is threatened by nickel mining despite USDA Forest Service recommendations for its protection as Wilderness and as a Wild and Scenic River.  USDA Forest Service photo.
The total area of the Smith River Watershed is 460,000 acres.  In California 313,600 acres of National Forest land is within the Smith River National Recreation Area.  While it might seem that the work has been done for the Smith, about 11% of its basin—the north half of the North Fork Smith watershed—lies in Oregon, outside the umbrella of the Smith River National Recreation Area.  While some of the watershed in Oregon is within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, about 30,000 acres in Oregon remain unprotected.

Why is this 30,000 acres so important? It includes the most productive of the North Fork's tributaries, a priceless gem called Baldface Creek.  The creek's 19,000 acre watershed is in reference condition.  It's aquatic habitat is described as large and complex, with no barriers to migration.  Salmonids are found as far as there's water in the tributaries.

Earlier this decade, large blocks of nickel-laterite mining claims were located in the Oregon North Fork Smith watershed, especially Baldface Creek.  Several thousand acres of mining claims (Cal-Nickel claim group) in the Smith River NRA also remain active.  The development of nickel strip mining in the Smith River watershed would be a serious blow to the integrity of the whole watershed.  With the increasing price of nickel, driven by global demand, it could happen.  The Smith River will remain vulnerable to industrial scale mining as long as the 30,000 acres of Oregon's North Fork Smith Watershed remains unprotected.