Through partnerships, mutually beneficial agreements and sheer determination, the Yurok Tribe is reclaiming their rightful role as steward of the most pristine place in the Klamath Basin.
The Yuroks, in conjunction with Western Rivers Forestry, recently secured $9.9 million to purchase 6,479 acres of land in the Blue Creek and neighboring Bear Creek watersheds from Green Diamond Resource Company. The Tribe plans to turn the ice-blue Klamath tributary, which better resembles a river, into a salmon sanctuary.
The entire 47,000 acres Blue Creek drainage lies within Yurok Ancestral Territory. In addition to supporting fish, including the threatened coho salmon, the rolling river valley of Blue Creek is a stronghold of biodiversity and is home to many mammals including the Pacific fisher, Humboldt marten and spotted owl.
“Blue Creek is the very seed of the ecosystem. From there, we can grow out again,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. “We have for thousands of years, if not tens of thousands of years, managed our land in a responsible way.”
Blue Creek is crucial to the prosperity and proliferation of Chinook salmon. At the peak of the fall king salmon migration, the mouth of Blue Creek runs more than 15-degrees cooler than the main-stem Klamath, which is typically 72 degrees or warmer. The salmon-stressing water temps in August and September are a result of a warming effect caused by the Klamath River dams. Once the temps breach 70, the metabolic and immune systems of both adult and juvenile Chinook salmon quickly break down. At the same time and as a result of torrid river conditions, parasitic pathogens such as Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, which caused the 2002 fish kill, multiply rapidly.
Almost every year a frigid, Olympic-size pool, known as Blue Hole, forms at the mouth of Blue Creek. This pool is vital to salmon survival. After chilling in the cold-water refuge, a salmon’s body temperature can drop by a full 8 degrees, bringing the fish’s physiological systems back into balance.
Sedimentation has destroyed all other extensive cold water refugia on the lower Klamath, making Blue Creek the only place where fish can find respite when the river is too warm. It is not hyperbole to say if it were not for Blue Creek, few salmon would be left on the third largest fish producing river on the West Coast.
Forest health is directly related to fish health
A sustainable salmon run requires more than an unimpaired riparian zone. The Yurok Tribe plans to restore the acquisition in the Blue Creek watershed to an old growth forest full of biodiversity. Historical logging operations in the watershed left a maze of roads that have the potential to dump giant loads of fish-choking sediment into the creek. The roads will be re-contoured and fortified with native flora. Some of the former logging land contains mono-crops of Douglas fir and redwood. The Tribe plans to rejuvenate these unnatural forests, which provide very little benefit to wildlife, by reintroducing hardwoods, such as tanoak, maple and madrone. A myriad of understory plants will flourish in these renewed, heterogeneous forests, including huckleberry, salal, bear grass, scores of fungi, deer, black bear pileated woodpecker and many more.
The planned, traditional use of fire will be employed to reduce the chances of an environmentally calamitous, catastrophic conflagration. The Yurok use of fire also promotes healthy oak trees, hazel stands and many other positive outcomes and cultural benefits.
Since time immemorial, the health of the Yurok people has been directly connected to that of the forest. One day, through this restorative effort, the scars of logging operations will no longer be distinguishable in the Blue Creek watershed.
“If we take care of the forest it will take care of us,” Chairman O’Rourke concluded.
Matt Mais is Public Relations Manager for the Yurok Tribe.