Skokomish Watershed

Posted: Nov 1, 2006
Written by: 
Natalie Henry Bennon

Skokomish River. Mason County, Washington. Southeast portion of the Olympic Peninsula.

Objective: The mission of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team (SWAT) is to "work towards common ecological and economic goals in the Skokomish River watershed through collaborative basin restoration projects." SWAT emphasizes action — designing, funding and implementing restoration projects. Its work has focused on the South Fork of the Skokomish in the upper watershed where road restoration is critical and consensus more tenable. SWAT also advocates for collaboration and support of restoration projects throughout the watershed.

Participants: Over two dozen, including the U.S. Forest Service (ex officio); The Wilderness Society; Green Diamond Resource Company; Skokomish Tribal Nation (ex officio); Mason Conservation District; Mason County; Olympic Forest Coalition; Conservation Northwest; Tacoma Power, Washington Native Plant Society; American Forest Resource Council; Washington Department of Ecology; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks (D), and other organizations and individuals.

History: The Skokomish is the most flood-prone river in the state of Washington.  Its waters once hosted throngs of Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal summer run chum, bull trout, and steelhead — all either endangered or close to it — but migrations now are impeded in the north fork by a dam and in the south fork by aggradation (filling with gravel and sediment) of the river bottom that raises the water table and blocks passage for salmon migration. The sediment has also greatly degraded water quality, so much so that native shellfish have been eliminated because they cannot survive amid the fine sediment currently in the watershed, according to Rich Geiger of the Mason Conservation District. Flooding in 2003 caused part of the river to change course, and some lower valley residents have watermarks up to five feet high in their homes.  Meanwhile, floods and rising groundwater deliver fecal coliform from failing wastewater systems and livestock waste into the lower valley river system.

Many factors contributed to this situation, including years of clearcut logging in the upper watershed, road building, two dams, farming, development, and natural events. Logging provided timber for local mills through the Shelton Sustained Yield Unit, which was established by Congress to give local timber companies' exclusive bidding rights to public forests.  Cutting dropped dramatically in the late 1980s due largely to the presence of endangered species, but the sediment problem remains. 

The primary focus of restoration in the upper watershed is to fix or remove old logging roads, which have, in many cases, impeded fish passage and caused sediment to wash into streams. "There is a major flooding problem, with the river bottom being increasingly filled with sediment coming from the roads in the national forest lands," said Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society.

"If you live in the Skokomish Valley, you've been dealing with greater and greater problems for years. It's a river valley, and it's at the base of the Olympic Mountains. Gravity is doing its job very well, because the Olympics are slowly but surely coming down and filling up the valley," said Patti Case of the Green Diamond Resource Company, which owns and manages 23,000 acres of timberland in the Skokomish watershed, below the national forest lands.

 Members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team inspect new road construction methods by Green Diamond Resource Company.
Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society
Several organizations in the Skokomish watershed have long recognized these problems and worked to control the erosion. Green Diamond has completed some $750,000 in road upgrades and decommissioning in the watershed since the mid-1990s. The Forest Service also contributed significantly to restoration in the 1990s, spending about $10 million on the South Fork of the Skokomish.

But few organizations worked collaboratively on a consistent basis until the Skokomish Watershed Action Team (SWAT) formed. It started as a group of people simply trying to help the Forest Service determine if it was wise to use stewardship contracting to help pay to remove one part of LeBar Creek logging road. The Forest Service was about to finalize the Flat Timber Sale, when Conservation Northwest suggested the agency use  stewardship contracting instead of a timber sale because, among other benefits, it would allow the agency to use the receipts of the sale to offset the cost of needed restoration work.

"We recognized it would delay the project by probably at least a year to do that, but we thought well, all right, we'll give it a shot and see how it goes," said Kathy O'Halloran, natural resources staff officer at Olympic National Forest (ONF).

Conservation Northwest gathered a wide spectrum of people for that first collaborative meeting in 2004. At the time, the ONF's budget was getting lean, so while the agency had plans to decommission LeBar, it had no money to do it. Everyone agreed that stewardship contracting was a wise way to fund removal of the road. The Flat Timber Sale became the Flat Stewardship Project.

When the decision was made and Flat project planning complete, the new collaborative team was at a crossroads: should it stay together, or disband?  The participants decided to stay together, calling themselves the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, "a diverse, informal partnership of governments, land managers, and others working collaboratively to restore a healthy Skokomish watershed."

"We're kind of an umbrella coalition.  We don't have a board or a 501(c)(3) status.  Various members of the coalition sponsor various funding proposals, and we act as a funding coordinator and a source of support," explains Mike Anderson.  "The extent of of our formalized [structure] is just a one-page statement of goals and principles.  Otherwise we operate by consensus.  We don't take votes.  We try to operate in areas where there is broad agreement." 

SWAT's principles provide for widely inclusive participation, but do not allow a single interest group to veto a project.  At the same time, participants are not  pressured to support a particular decision nor penalized for not supporting it.  "When we do letters of support, I never send out a letter saying that the SWAT supports such-and-such," says Anderson.  A typical letter on SWAT letterhead begins, "As participants in the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, we respectfully urge you to support..." and ends with an impressive list of 15 or more individual and organizational signatories. "It's always a sign-on letter, and every letter goes through the same sign-on opportunity.  It's something that we need to do to keep this broad coalition together.  We need to recognize the independence of the Tribe and other organizations."  

LeBar Creek Road
Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service
Accomplishments: The Flat Stewardship Project, the ONF's and SWAT's first, was awarded in June 2006.  The 200 acres of commercial thinning is generating $250,000 worth of timber, which is paid for by the contractor through the performance of the same amount of restoration work in the area.(the decommissioning of LeBar Creek Road)  That "goods for services" transaction has been supplemented by an additional $420,000 raised by the ONF and SWAT from various state and federal sources, and SWAT is seeking an additional $155,000 to complete the work.  In addition, the Washington Native Plant Society, a SWAT participant, has donated 52 days of volunteer monitoring of vegetative diversity and invasive species along the roads in the area.   

The LeBar Creek decommissioning and stream restoration is expected to be completed in 2008.  When the area was originally logged, a road was needed across a steep valley with a stream — a tributary to LeBar — running through the bottom. Instead of building a bridge, the Forest Service filled the valley with dirt, creating a culvert at the bottom that the stream runs through. The road rises high above the valley floor. Approximately 33,000 cubic yards of fill has to be removed to restore the creek. "That's just huge. That's kind of mind-boggling," O'Halloran said.

"It's a major hazard to the watershed," Anderson said. "If that culvert plugged, a lot of the road could wash out," causing thousands of cubic yards of sediment to wash down the river.

SWAT also helped the ONF develop the Pine Creek Stewardship Project, which included commercial thinning and additional road decommissioning.

When interviewed in 2006, some SWAT participants were frustrated by the lack of resources to do needed work. "[The ONF is] funded for the timber side of it but not fot he other stuff. So it's frustrating." O'Halloran said.  There is a little grant money available for upper watershed restoration work, and what is available is very competitive, Geiger added. "We have been successful with the stewardship contracting, but as of yet we haven't identified other significant pockets of funding, although it is coming," Case said.

came with the assistance of Rep. Norm Dicks, the Skokomish area's representative in Congress since 1976 and currently the third ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairman of the subcommittee dealing with most federal natural resource and environmental funding. Dicks suggested SWAT prepare a three-year action plan for restoring the Skokomish watershed.  The plan, completed in mid-2007, carefully details the work to be accomplished, including estimated costs for specific projects. It makes it clear that substantial federal investment will be needed if those projects are to come to fruition.  "Two key actions will determine the overall effectiveness of Skokomish watershed restoration:"

  1. fixing US Forest Service roads in the upper watershed, and
  2. promptly completing a General Investigation watershed study and environmental analysis by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Mason County, and Skokomish Indian Tribe that will result in an integrated restoration plan for the entire watershed.
"While the outcome of other state and local restoration efforts rely on these two critical actions, their proper execution depends solely upon full federal support," the plan states.

In February 2008, a press release from Dicks' office announced that he had created a national Legacy Roads and Trails program by adding $40 million to the 2008 Omnibus Appropriations bill. "The money will fund critical maintenance and restoration work, especially in areas where forest roads may pose risks to water quality and threatened or endangered wildlife species," said the release.  As an example, "$855,000 will fund work on the Olympic National Forest, including decommissioning roads and replacement of a culvert that blocks access to upstream habitat."  

"We have ambitious plans," explains Anderson.  "The three-year action plan has a $17 million dollar estimate, mostly for dealing with the Forest Service roads in the upper watershed....We've gotten about $300,000 from stewardship projects.  The $700,000 from the Legacy Roads program is the single largest financial boost we've gotten.  A lot of money is coming [into the watershed] from the state.  Some is federal pass through. Almost $2.5 million is allocated for a variety of Skokomish projects through the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, which combines federal and state money.  The legislature appropriated about $40 million last year for Puget Sound recovery."  There have also been EPA grants and a portion of the counties' Title II ("Secure Schools") payments allocated through local Resource Advisory Councils.

While SWAT continues to seek funding for work on federal land, it also encourages restoration on private lands.  Green Diamond has been doing its own road upgrades and decommissioning as part of a strategy to disconnect roads from watercourses and restore fish passage.  The company's Habitat Conservation Plan was the first in the nation to integrate endangered species and water quality issues.  Tacoma Power, another SWAT participant, recently constructed a new valve at the base of Cushman No. 2 Dam at an estimated cost of $1.5 million., a move which enabled the company to quadruple the flow from the dam into the North Fork Skokomish River Restoration of North Fork flows is critical to achieving ecological and social sustainability in the watershed.

The Skokomish Tribe, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and ONF are addressing upland wildlife management for species of cultural concern to the Tribe that span sub-basins and jurisdictions, including a $200,000 elk enhancement project.  Other projects jumpstarted by the SWAT's support (including projects on Skokomish Tribal lands and on private lands via the Mason Conservation District) address water quality testing, organic farming, pasture rotation, cattle fencing, waste management, and more. "I've been doing this work for 12 years and I've never seen such a watershed effort. There's effort from the head of the watershed to the mouth of the watershed," Geiger said.

"We ran into a bit of a problem with the Flat [stewardship project] because of the timber market," Anderson says.  There was some helicopter logging involved, and the purchaser could not afford to complete the project when the market collapsed.  It's partially done.  We didn't really realize that that would also impact the restoration part of it because they don't want to do the restoration until they have the receipts from the timber sale.  We were not able to complete the LeBar road project in summer of 2007, but are almost positive it is going to be completed in 2008 because we won't be relying on the stewardship receipts because some of the Legacy Road appropriation will be used to finish up the LeBar Road.

"We had a big rain, flood event, back in December.  The Olympic National Forest was very hard hit, and one of the impacts was a culvert was dislodged on the LeBar road, and so a lot of road sediment ended up going into LeBar creek which was very unfortunate, and if we had been able to complete the road commissioning last summer as expected, it probably could have been avoided."

While getting a diverse group of people to work together has been one of the group's greatest accomplishments, it has also been a challenge. "There's been a history of conflict and acrimony in the Skokomish watershed, I would guess because of the flooding that has occurred over the last few decades. And a lot of finger-pointing has gone on about why, who's to blame for the flooding," Anderson said. "Some people blame the Forest Service, some Green Diamond Resource Company, or the dams." Several other issues, including dikes, dredging and other infrastructure in the valley, are also blamed. Several years ago, the county angered landowners by placing a moratorium on building because of the flooding. The Forest Service and Green Diamond were in court to dissolve the sustained yield unit. "So, it's probably been a bit of a challenge for the members of the collaboration to be working together after so many years and decades of being in conflict, but that seems to be working very well so far," Anderson said.

Another challenge is time, especially when the members are volunteers.
Involving residents is one of the team's future goals, which Case thinks can be done by showing residents the team isn't just studying and meeting and talking about things — it's acting. "If you've got watermarks five feet up on your living room walls, it has to be frustrating to hear about continuous studies and no action. We want to tell them someone is acting. It's small, but we're acting," Case said. "It's important that everyone who is a stakeholder in the Skokomish be involved [with the team] because it's one thing we can do instead of just watching the sediment fill up the valley," Case said.

For more information see:

Wilderness Society "Watershed Restoration in Washington State" Statement

Flat Stewardship Project Business Plan
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