On a crisp Wednesday morning in December, a small group makes its way through tall reed canary grass on the side of a two-lane road near Ohop Creek in Eatonville. The 12 volunteers carry bundles of livestakes — stem cuttings from mature trees — and other materials as they step carefully through the wet grass, their knee-high galoshes sinking deep into the water and mud.
Far from the road, the crew stops, organizes itself briefly, then begins driving the livestakes into the ground with orange rubber mallets. They hope that over the next three years, these livestakes will grow into mature Pacific and Sitka Willow trees. In three hours, 400 potential new trees have been planted.
It’s one of many regular tasks performed by volunteers associated with the Nisqually Land Trust, an independent nonprofit that, for the last 30 years, has been dedicated to acquiring and managing critical lands in the Nisqually watershed. For three hours about six times a month, a group of varying sizes gathers to look after the land: sometimes hammering livestakes into the soft, marshy ground, other times removing trash and invasive species like Himalayan blackberries and English ivy.
Between 2011 and the beginning of 2019, Nisqually Land Trust volunteers have dedicated more than 21,000 hours to such labor-intensive tasks in the Nisqually watershed, which remains one of the healthiest and least-developed natural areas in the state.
“There aren’t very many watersheds in the Puget Sound — or in the country — that can say we’re in better shape now than we were 30 years ago,” said David Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Tribe. “The Nisqually is in one of those unique positions that can say that.”
That legacy of success is built on the shoulders of the Nisqually Tribe, which has been caring for the land since time immemorial. For members of the Tribe, the health of the land remains deeply important, both to their way of life and to their cultural roots.
“We are cultural protectors: We need to maintain and take care of what has been here for thousands of years,” said Hanford McCloud, Nisqually Tribal Council member. “I grew up swimming (in the Nisqually) as a little kid: They threw me in the water when I was 7 or 8, because that’s how you learn how to swim.” He chuckled and shook his head, holding in his hands an intricate hat that he wove from the bark of a cedar tree. “It’s not deep, just cold, and fast. You have to be quick on your feet. Hold your breath. Get your hands and feet dirty. That’s the teaching.”
Growing up attached so closely to the land, tribal members learn its ways as generations before them have always done, understanding which plants to gather, which to leave alone, and the predictable rhythm of a salmon run.
When the land is unhealthy, however, tribes feel the differences most acutely — and the traditions they have passed down over generations are suddenly less predictable. For the Nisqually Tribe, the most important of these traditions is fishing.
“There are 42 river miles of salmon habitat in the mainstead Nisqually,” Troutt said, explaining that salmon are as important to the success of the land and water as they are to the Tribe’s culture. Salmon were once abundant in the Nisqually River, where tribal fishermen took to the water to set nets and catch fish every Sunday through Wednesday, eight months of the year.
In 2015, however, the Tribe fished eight days in total, and hasn’t caught a steelhead — one of its most culturally important fish — in more than four years.
But the bleak picture of salmon today is balanced by decades of ardent activism, led by the Tribe and followed by countless organizations and individuals — like those volunteers planting trees that will create shade to stabilize water temperatures and add much-needed oxygen to the fish’s habitat — to reverse the fate of the salmon, and, in doing so, the entire watershed.
“In 1987, when we started this journey to protect those 42 miles (of salmon habitat), only about 3 percent of it was in permanent protection,” Troutt said. Since then, through the creation of a land trust, 70 percent of the Nisqually is in permanent stewardship. After more than 100 years of salmon not having access to critical environments for their health because of logging and agriculture, 90 percent of the land has now been restored.
“About 900 of those acres are functional habitat again,” Troutt said, referring to the 1,000 acres of land dug up in the watershed in the 1890s for agricultural purposes. “That’s one of many legacy actions we’ve taken that make a big difference now and will continue to make a difference for hundreds of years.”
Many state and federal organizations are involved in the restoration process that the Tribe has spearheaded, including the local citizens that hammer livestakes; monitor local habitats; and, once a year, gather in Eatonville for an event called the Salmon Toss.
This year, the group participating in the annual toss convenes on a Saturday morning at the Mashel River, a main salmon spawning tributary of the Nisqually. Nano Perez of the Nisqually Tribe begins unloading dead, frozen salmon that came from the Tribe’s hatchery, dropping them into the dirt.
One by one, volunteers grab a fish in each hand by its cold, stiff tail and carry it 100 muddy paces to a jagged rock, the Mashel rushing down below. The decomposing carcasses reintroduce critical nutrients to the ecosystem — which are in short supply because increasingly fewer salmon are returning home to spawn and then die. Each fish is thrown into the river, its large body crashing into the water with spectacular force.
It’s the decades-long strategic planning of organizations, paired with the commitment of everyday people, that those trying to protect and preserve the watershed hope will make a difference.
“We have created this big watershed community that’s all pulling in the same direction,” Troutt said. “And it’s really the Tribe that’s provided that critical leadership to give them the direction to pull in.”
The Nisqually Tribe’s efforts to repair damage done to the watershed, and to seek partnership from other organizations willing to aid them in doing so, gained momentum in the 1960s, when plans were announced to transform the Nisqually Delta — where the river meets the Sound 10 miles north of Olympia — into a deepwater seaport. After thousands of years depending on the resource-rich river and its surrounding area, the Tribe fought back against proposals to further develop the land.
“The health of our Nisqually community depends on the health of the Nisqually River,” said the late Billy Frank Jr., a revered tribal leader who dedicated his life to protecting the river and gained national recognition for doing so. Often heralded as the Martin Luther King Jr. of American Indians, Frank was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — in 2015 for more than five decades of advocacy work on the river and in the courts to save his people and their salmon.
“My dad’s legacy is still here,” said Frank Jr.’s son, Willie Frank III, gesturing to the gorgeous landscape of the Tribe’s reservation, which has remained so pristine in large part thanks to his father’s work. Billy Frank Jr. passed away in 2014 at the age of 83, but his legacy is ever-present.
“You see it in everything we do. We protect 80 miles from Mount Rainier to the mouth of the river — from summit to sea,” said Frank. “All the work that we do along the Nisqually is not just for us; it’s for everybody in the watershed.”
Protected areas include The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, which has preserved the Nisqually Delta since it was established in 1974 as the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The area was further restored in 2009 with the removal of dikes that were installed more than 100 years earlier, reconnecting 762 acres of land with the Puget Sound.
The fight, however, continues to face long odds. Washington’s native salmon populations still struggle, even after 20 years and almost $1 billion spent on Washington state salmon recovery programs, according to the 2018 State of Salmon Report by the governor’s Salmon Recovery Office. An imbalance of salmon is harmful to an entire ecosystem and economy: At least 137 species depend of the nutrients that wild salmon provide, and Pacific salmon fuel a $3 billion industry.
“In short, salmon are the key to protecting a way of life rooted in the North Pacific environment: Protect salmon, and you protect forests, food, water, communities, and economies,” wrote Guido Rahr, president and CEO of Wild Salmon Center, a Portland-based environmental nonprofit.
And the local tribes that have depended on the thriving presence of salmon — Chinook, coho, and chum — depend on the salmon to symbolically represent tribal sovereignty.
“Without our culture and our natural resources, we lose our way of life,” Frank said. “It’s really about being able to put that net in the water and exercise our treaty right.”
Frank is referring to the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, which guaranteed to nine tribes, including the Nisqually and the Puyallup, “the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations,” while also cementing that the tribes would “cede, relinquish, and convey” 2.24 million acres of their land to the U.S. government. Despite the promises of the treaty, it was common for more than a century for Indigenous people to be arrested by state game wardens, who accused them of fishing out of season or without licenses — a practice that explains Billy Frank Jr.’s more than 50 arrests, starting when he was 14 years old.
The treaty wasn’t respected until Billy Frank Jr. took a case to the Federal Court, which resulted, after three years of litigation, in the 1974 Boldt decision, giving tribes the right to half the salmon caught in the Puget Sound area. The new law revitalized hope for many local tribes: It was, after all, one of the most impactful court decisions in favor of Indigenous rights ever passed.
But today, as the salmon dwindle, the Nisqually Tribe worries about the implications of losing the ability to fish.
“The salmon is of huge importance to our culture,” Troutt said. “It’s our symbol, it’s how we’re identified, it’s on our flag. (Fishing) may not be as important as it was historically from an economic standpoint, but it will always be hugely important from a cultural standpoint.”
Willie Frank III, now 37, still fishes on the river today, as he has since his older brother, Sugar, taught him almost 20 years ago. At noon on Sundays during the ever-shortening fishing season, the two go to Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually River — where their father was arrested dozens of times for fishing — and set their nets, staying on the river until well after dark. They rise early on Monday to check the nets, hauling salmon from the water into their boat, monitoring the water for shifts in the tide.
“Being able to set that net on a Sunday, for me, it’s like going to church,” Frank said. “My dad would come out on the water with us in his late 70s, early 80s, and I could see how important it was to him — when that fish hit the net, he would damn near jump into the water after it. It’s something we could all share. I still think about him all the time when we’re out on the water.”
Frank and other fishermen can still set their nets, thanks to the Tribe’s hatcheries on the river, which bolster the wild salmon population and minimize the effects of fishing on the declining species. It’s the wild salmon, though, that everyone hopes to revive.
“I don’t want to be the generation that’s standing in a museum and having to explain to our youth that we used to catch these salmon in the Nisqually River,” Frank said, shaking his head. “And, you know, we’re really not too far away from that.”
Unfortunately, all the work done to cultivate a healthier watershed does not eliminate the problems salmon face once they travel from freshwater to sea. The anadromous species migrates to coastal waters and northward to feeding grounds for anywhere from one to seven years before returning to their birthplace to spawn and die. And in that long journey, salmon face increasingly looming obstacles.
“Even though the habitat is getting better and the fish are responding, we’re challenged with everything else going on around us,” Troutt said.
One of the main problems difficult to mitigate in the efforts to save salmon is the rapidly growing population in the South Sound.
“Puget Sound is growing by leaps and bounds: There are a hundred people moving to the Puget Sound every day — 900 moving to Thurston County every month, and all these people have little impacts that eventually affect the Tribe and its resources,” Troutt said.
There are so many more factors, too, that are simply out of the Tribe’s control.
“When there are all these dead zones, warm water, climate change, septic runoff, drugs running into the Puget Sound — how are the salmon supposed to survive?” asked Frank. “And what are we supposed to do?”
To boot, Troutt said that salmon are increasingly vulnerable to predators as species imbalances exacerbate. The biggest problem for salmon today — especially for Chinook, Troutt said — is the growth of seal and sea lion populations. In 1987, there were 3,000 seals in the Salish Sea. Now there are 16,000.
This spike in seal populations proves problematic not only to salmon — which are a main part of the seals’ diet — but to southern resident killer whales, which also prey primarily on salmon to survive.
“The seals are eating too many fish and are competing directly with southern resident killer whales for food,” Troutt said. “And one of them is winning.”
The seals end up without humans as their natural predators (southern resident killer whales don’t prey on them, only on salmon) thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Because humans have been removed from the natural order, Troutt said, it results in an imbalance in the food chain.
“The Tribes have always been involved in ecosystem resource management — using animals like seals for clothing, fuel, food,” Troutt explained. “But the Tribes can’t do that anymore. When we remove the human predator from the marine mammal population, one species explodes because there’s nothing to control it from doing so. And everything else suffers for it.”
The group of volunteers at Ohop Creek plants the last of its livestakes for the day, finishing the process of securing a plastic cone around the base of each to keep it safe from the teeth of beavers and mice. It begins to rain as the group makes its way back to the road. Some will return on Saturday in a different area to perform the same task: a small act of optimism — a mundane attempt to bring life back to an entire watershed — in the face of a growing problem.
“Our commercial fishery is almost nonexistent now,” said Frank, who continues to fight the problem but finds it difficult to remain entirely optimistic about the results. He said the change in natural resources when fishing on the river is obvious — and difficult to explain to those fishermen who have spent their entire lives lowering nets into the water. With both Chinook and steelhead listed as endangered species, fishing becomes increasingly complex: a numbers game carefully monitored to the tee.
And though Frank expressed major worry over what will happen to the area in the next 10 to 20 years, Troutt — who has dedicated his life and career to the watershed — said that he still holds on to hope.
“I do believe that people care about this stuff,” he said. “I think a challenge is educating people about why the fish are important, why we need partners, or money, why we should be given the resources to continue this work. With that, I do hope we will make different decisions and that we will respect and understand what’s important for fish, for us, and for the world.”
Troutt’s sentiment of hope echoes the spirit of Billy Frank Jr., who was known for his patience and optimism, as well as his ability to reach across the table and bring people together in an effort that still continues today.
“We have to work with each other,” Billy Frank Jr. once said. “Our Earth is crying. And it’s crying for help. In the everyday movement of our country, you can make a difference. You can make a difference.”