Nisqually River Council

Posted: Sep 1, 2005
Written by: 
Natalie Henry

Nisqually River, southeast Puget Sound, Washington state.

Objective: The original objective of the Nisqually River Council was to bring together diverse stakeholders to develop and implement a Nisqually River management plan that would protect the river and its fish. Over the last 20 years, the council has implemented most of that plan and, upon its completion, will continue to work to resolve divisive issues surrounding timber harvesting, land use, salmon recovery, and water allocations. The council is also evolving to protect, not only ecosystem health, but also local economic vitality.

Participants: Nisqually River Council; Nisqually Tribe; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; National Park Service; U.S. Department of Defense; USDA Forest Service; Washington State Departments of Fish and Wildlife, Ecology, and Natural Resources; Washington Secretary of State; University of Washington; Counties of Thurston, Pierce, and Lewis; Tacoma Power; Stewardship Partners; Nisqually River Foundation, Nisqually Land Trust; communities; landowners; citizens; and local businesses.

History: Like most western rivers, for decades the 78-mile-long Nisqually River has been feeling the pressure of human development. On the surface it might seem well situated, beginning life in a Mt. Rainier glacier and ending it in a national wildlife refuge. Much of the basin is federally owned, so it has been largely untouched by industry. Nevertheless, though it was once filled to the brim with salmon and trout, the Nisqually has seen its fisheries decline, its forests trimmed, its banks populated by cows, and its riparian areas sunk with concrete for new homes. It is sandwiched between two major, growing urban centers—Seattle and Portland—the latter of which once tried to feed the Nisqually its garbage.

 Nisqually River Watershed
It's remarkable the Nisqually stayed as healthy as it did, said David Troutt, chair of the Nisqually River Council and natural resources director for the Nisqually Tribe. "It's this wild jewel in the middle of this urban, growing region," he said.

Community members knew it was imperative to protect it and had tried repeatedly to do so. The most publicized effort was by then-Gov. Dan Evans (R), who attempted but failed to develop a comprehensive management plan for the river in the 1970s.

It was not until 1985 that concern over the Nisqually culminated in a successful appeal to the state legislature to create the Nisqually River Task Force. Led largely by Nisqually Tribal Elder Billy Frank Jr., who also chairs the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, several community leaders lobbied the legislature to establish the task force with the goal of developing a river management plan that represented all of the basin's interests. The legislature agreed, and in 1987 the task force released a draft plan and recommended establishing the Nisqually River Council to implement it. The legislature honored the plan and funded it for the next decade.

Many community members welcomed the task force, but landowners were skeptical. There had been talk of creating public trails along the river that would cross private land, or of extending the boundaries of Mt. Rainier National Park to include the lower Nisqually River. "Frankly, I was scared out of my wits," said Jim Wilcox of Wilcox Farms, whose family came to the Nisqually 100 years ago and owns large plots along the river. "I figured that our way of life was over and that I needed to be on the council just to protect our vital interests."

But Wilcox was pleasantly surprised by the process, finding more common ground than not. "What I found was what I wanted, in terms of being able to continue to farm and continue to build our business, was for the most part what everybody else wanted, too," Wilcox said.

Accomplishments: With 18 years of working together under its belt, the council has a slew of accomplishments. But Troutt singles out one in particular as the most important: the creation of a watershed community where people recognize where they live and that what they do on a day-to-day basis affects one another. "We all live downstream of each other," he said.

Another impressive, and more concrete, accomplishment is the Timber, Fish, and Wildlife Agreement detailing best management practices on private and state forests. The agreement helped resolve longstanding timber disputes in the watershed and was used as a model for the statewide Forest and Fish Plan.

The council was also the first in the region to develop a local recovery plan for endangered salmon runs. Before fall chinook in the area were even protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the council saw the writing on the wall and entrusted the Nisqually Indian Tribe to draft a recovery plan with input from the council. In 1999, three months after the fish was listed, the council released its recovery plan, which is used as a model for other plans around Puget Sound and the region. The council has been implementing its recovery plan for the last six years, and through it has protected 70 percent of the Nisqually's main stem habitat under various management agreements with public and private landowners, including the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Defense Department.

 The council meets on the third Friday of each month at various locations throughout the watershed.
Photo by Dan Kowalski
"At a time when conflict seems to rule the day and ESA is perhaps the most confrontational issue facing the West, the Nisqually River Council moved quickly through the process and got a plan before anyone really knew what it meant. We were way ahead of the curve on this. And it was because we had 12 years of working together to build from," Troutt said.

Those years of experience and trust-building have been the basis for the council's success, according to the council's director, Justin Hall. "The true accomplishment is that they've built this level of trust and collaboration over many, many years of being at the table and discussing issues, and each organization or group following through on their part of it. That long time spent together has made it possible to do all the things that we've done," Hall said.

Other accomplishments include:
  • Creating the Nisqually River Education Program, a watershed-based curriculum for grades K-12 in 1990, exposing thousands of students to this approach;
  • Developing a watershed-specific timber management approach through the development of the Nisqually River Resource Management Plan to maintain a viable timber industry in the basin;
  • Founding the Nisqually Stream Stewards in 2002, through which more than 300 volunteers are helping restore and monitor the watershed;
  • Adopting the state's first Watershed Plan in 2004, as required by the state legislature, to guide local governments on water use and quality and balancing resource and community needs; and
  • Securing through one of its members, Stewardship Partners, public and private funding to support the development of a database identifying fish and wildlife habitat and prioritizing restoration projects; a stream catalogue identifying habitat conditions and opportunities for landowner collaboration; voluntary guidelines for new building construction; and a draft Nisqually Stewardship Plan that sets economic and environmental sustainability goals for the next 50 years.
Future goals will focus on developing a sustainable, vital local economy. "Most of our success and a lot of the original plan centered around natural resource issues—protecting habitat and water quality and salmon and elk—and we've been incredibly successful around that mission. Fewer of our objectives addressed the local economy, and we've been fairly successful at that, but we recognize that we need to do more," Troutt said. He noted that the council is making a concerted effort now to address economic issues, with special goals to boost tourism and recreation year-round in the basin, promote green building and development, and secure environmental certifications for timber and farm products harvested in the basin.

Challenges/constraints: As with any and all conservation efforts, funding is a constant challenge, according to Hall. In the late 1990s, the state legislature withdrew funding for the council, but later reinstated it at $100,000 annually.

Another challenge is attracting volunteers and citizen council members. The council is attempting to expand its citizen involvement by establishing—in addition to its existing citizen advisory committee—one committee of local businesses and another of organized communities. Those committees will be intimately involved in implementing the council's future goal of supporting a sustainable economy in the basin.

 The Nisqually River flows into Puget Sound at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Photo by Dan Kowalski
The biggest challenge, however, is dealing with the region's precipitous growth. The population in the Puget Sound area is expected to double from 2 million to 4 million in the next 20 years. "People in Seattle may not know where we are, but they have an effect. We're going to have to reach out to the citizens in the region and educate them about their place in Puget Sound and their place in the ecosystem and their place in this global system, and it's only if we're successful in that overall agenda will we have success on the Nisqually," Troutt said. The council is also trying to reach out nationally, most recently by beginning to partner and share ideas with the Diablo Trust in Arizona.

Troutt added that he has heard from many others involved in collaborative conservation efforts—most recently, some of the participants in the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation—that the efforts of collaborative groups would be bolstered if they had decision-making authority. But Troutt said one of the greatest strengths of the Nisqually River Council is that they have no authority, so they have to appeal to everyone, earn everyone's trust, and make solutions work for everyone. "If we truly had decision-making authority I think it would be challenging to have the influence that we've had on decisions," he said. "We're not in a regulatory box. We're thinking outside the box."

For more information see:

Nisqually River Council

Nisqually Land Trust

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
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