By Eric Rosane / [email protected]
Bob Russell jumps excitedly out of his van on the side of the road near a modest stretch of National Road 6, just east of Adna.
It runs to a nearby creek – Mill Creek, its convergence with the highway about half a mile from its confluence with the Chehalis River. The creek is moving slowly, filled with lots of debris.
But it’s not just any stream. This creek also flows through the foothills to the north and through several properties, including Russell’s.
It also produces salmon.
“For me, I think people don’t realize the salmon is in their backyard. We haven’t communicated it well enough. There is no signage on any of these streets indicating that this is a salmon crossing,” the 63-year-old resident of Chehalis said to the sound of passing cars.
“We don’t communicate, and I just think people would treat the environment where the salmon are a lot better if they knew they were there. I know I did.
For Russell, it all started nearly eight years ago when he was approached by Lewis County Conservation District staff saying they believed Mill Creek was used by salmon in the fall. .
He didn’t think so because he had never seen one – and neither had the four dozen other homeowners who lived along the creek.
“Oh, I was excited”
On a recent cold, sunny day, Russell walked with his black labs, Rigby and Selah, near the confluence of Mill and Wisner creeks.
He threw a rubber ball into the stream. Rigby – eager and attentive – followed his owner’s command to sit and wait.
“OK,” Russell said, his simple command punctuated by the dog splashing, full force, into the stream.
This is where it all began.
In 2008, Kelly Verd, the Lewis County Conservation District Special Projects Coordinator, was conducting a habitat survey in the area during a culvert removal project on the main stem of Mill Creek that was blocking fish. downstream of the Russell property.
She had heard from a colleague from another agency that there were fish upriver from the location, but they hadn’t seen any sightings in recent years and the creeks had been poorly mapped.
Russell said he first made contact with the conservation district around 2013. Verd told him that Mill Creek had coho potential via the Chehalis River. But he wasn’t so sure.
That changed on a rainy day in November 2014. Russell caught a glimpse of something spectacular.
He was walking along the creek that day along part of his 88-acre property, descending a hill along Wisner Creek, when he came across a beaver dam.
“The rains had come two days before, and as I walked in I said ‘oh, the dam has burst’ – and the way they tend to burst is on one side, and they tend to swinging like a gate. And as I was watching that dam, here’s a fucking hen – 5 or 6 pounds silver – swimming half a mile away,” Russell said.
He ran home and called the conservation district to report his findings. They were right – the fish were using the stream, or at least they were trying to.
“Oh, I was so excited,” he said.
A changing perception
Invigorated by the sighting, the Lewis County Conservation District contacted him around this time with prospects for a creek improvement project for Wisner Creek.
The previous owner of the property had attempted to redirect the creek channel by digging a hay field, but had all but destroyed the creek in the process and converted it to shallow wetlands.
It was a miracle in itself that Russell saw this fish after the flood.
“Seeing is believing. He has really become a defender, but Bob is a pretty enthusiastic guy,” Verd said.
The Wisner Creek restoration effort would eventually get a $35,468 grant—primarily from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board—to begin a three-year reconstruction effort, which included rebuilding, maintaining and the planting of 850 native shrubs, spruces and cedars. .
As the trees grow tall, the overgrown, low-lying canary seed will die back, returning the land to a wet meadow and returning to its natural state. They were also able to make improvements to stream fishing, creating deep pools. The diversion of a 300 foot portion of the creek also opened up about a mile of upstream habitat for fish.
During the first heavy rain in November, and only for a window of about two weeks, coho salmon use the creek. Verd said it’s possible the hardliners are also using Mill and Wisner.
Russell, a retired papermaker, describes himself as a former beaver killer turned fish advocate. When he first bought his property, he turned his nose to environmental issues and environmentalists. But his perceptions have changed over time talking to conservationists and loggers.
“When I bought this in 2007 and 2008, there was nothing environmental in my head – I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t know what the critical areas were. I wasn’t a wetland scientist at the time. I bought it. I was just a capitalist, like everyone else, raping the earth, burning plastic, doing whatever,” he said. It just changed me. Once you get the data, you can’t go back and do the (things) you were doing before. »
Verd also saw this change in Russell.
“When we first met him, he knew the fish but had never really thought about it before. So the more he learned about the project, the more he became its biggest advocate. He changed his mind. notice over the years and he’s really an environmentalist now,” she said.
His biggest fear now is that developers, counties, municipalities and even his own neighbors are doing things that make the problem of fish habitat degradation worse.
Asked about his position on the proposal to build a water retention dam along the Chehalis River near Pe Ell, Russell said he was “still trying to understand”. He is somewhere in between.
“It’s hard to imagine we’re going to win this battle without both of them,” he said.
Relaunch the Stream team
The Lewis County Conservation District is reviving a former countywide education and volunteer program to help locals learn about fish, watersheds and fish habitat — and ownership of Russell will be the pilot project.
Kenna Fosnacht, the Conservation District Resource Technician, is leading the charge to create the Lewis County Creek Team, which will draw inspiration from other successful programs in Grays Harbor and Thurston counties. Part of its funding comes from the Chehalis Basin Board.
She hopes the work will be educational and helpful to community members.
“I want them to understand that there are salmon in our waterways and they deserve to be protected, and so they can make that their own,” Fosnacht said. “I’m in the early stages of getting it started, but I think it could be something great for the community.
The project will initially focus on continuing Wisner Creek’s efforts on the Russell property, but its scope and reach will grow as more people become interested. The group will host a tree planting event on Saturday, February 12 to kick off the efforts.