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Washington’s Skokomish Watershed: Exemplar of the Legacy Roads and Trails Initiative
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Nestled into the southeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington, the Skokomish River is at the forefront of the U.S. Forest Service’s growing efforts to restore damaged watersheds and reduce the environmental impacts of its road system. The Skokomish is both a fascinating case study of successful collaborative watershed restoration project and a politically crucial testing ground for large-scale road decommissioning in the national forests.
From a political standpoint, the Skokomish watershed is highly significant because of its keen interest to Congressman Norm Dicks, whose district encompasses the Skokomish and the rest of the Olympic Peninsula. As chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that controls the Forest Service budget, Congressman Dicks has spoken out for restoring national forest watersheds like the Skokomish. Most importantly, with the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative (WWRI) support, Dicks has created and championed the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative, which has brought $180 million to national forests across the country since its inception, including $90 million in fiscal year 2010.
The Skokomish River is ecologically and economically important since it is the major source of fresh water for Hood Canal – an arm of Puget Sound that is rich in seafood and aquatic diversity but frequently troubled by low dissolved oxygen levels. It is also the home of several threatened species of Pacific salmon – Chinook, coho, and summer chum – as well as the threatened bull trout.
The Skokomish is also notorious in Washington state because it is the most frequently flooded river in the state, due in part to the watershed’s unique history of logging, road building, and hydropower development during the 20th century.
A Troubled History of Excessive Logging and Flooding
Beginning in the 1950s, the Forest Service deliberately overcut the national forest lands in the South Fork Skokomish, consistent with the management plan for the congressionally authorized Shelton Cooperative Sustained Yield Unit. The purpose of the Shelton Unit was to maintain a steady supply of timber to local mills by accelerating the harvest of national forest lands while the timber regrew on the cut-over private lands owned by Simpson Timber Company (now called Green Diamond Resources).
The overcutting ceased in the 1980s, but not before sixty percent of the South Fork Skokomish watershed had been clear-cut and hundreds of miles of logging roads had been built within the watershed, often on steep and unstable slopes. The watershed quickly began to unravel, as a multitude of road failures and landslides sent vast amounts of gravel and sediment into the river’s tributaries. Much of this material was swept downriver and deposited in the lower river valley, where (because of hydropower development by the City of Tacoma that diverted most of the water out of the river’s North Fork) water flows were insufficient to flush the gravel out of the river and into Hood Canal.
As the lower river filled with excess gravel from the upper watershed, the river inevitably began to overflow its banks more often and more severely. The flooding has ravaged the homes and livelihoods of the valley residents, including farmers and the Skokomish Tribe, whose reservation lies at the mouth of the river along Hood Canal. The flooding has also damaged community relations, as accusations and denials of responsibility have created serious conflicts among angry local residents and Tribal members, the Forest Service, Green Diamond Resources, and the City of Tacoma.
In the 1990s the Forest Service began to address the problems caused by the mismanagement of the South Fork Skokomish watershed. With the adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, the Olympic National Forest shifted quickly from producing timber to restoring damaged forests and watersheds.
The Forest Service decommissioned more than 100 miles of high-risk roads in the South Fork watershed during the 1990s. The Olympic National Forest adopted an Access and Travel Management Plan that called for reducing the size of its forest-wide road system by one-third. However, funding for watershed restoration and road decommissioning dried up early in the next decade, stalling most of the restoration efforts and leaving many high-risk roads in place.
Collaborative Restoration: the Skokomish Watershed Action Team and Congressman Dicks
In 2005, a new chapter of the Skokomish River story opened modestly with an effort by the Forest Service and a conservation group, Conservation Northwest, to reach consensus on a proposed “stewardship” thinning project in the South Fork Skokomish watershed called the “Flat Timber Sale.” Participants included representatives of conservation groups such as the Olympic Forest Coalition and The Wilderness Society, along with representatives of the timber industry, the Skokomish Tribe, the office of Congressman Norm Dicks, and others. After a few field trips and meetings, the group agreed to support a modified thinning project, from which timber sale receipts would be used to fund high-priority road decommissioning and other restoration work in the watershed.
Encouraged by the successful agreement and constructive dialogue about Flat Stewardship, The Wilderness Society and others began to discuss the possibility of continuing and expanding the collaboration to address restoration of the entire Skokomish watershed. After an all-day facilitated discussion, the group agreed in early 2006 to form an informal collaborative group – the Skokomish Watershed Action Team (SWAT).
Congressman Dicks met with representatives of the SWAT later that year to discuss the group’s goals and strategy to restore the watershed. At the end of that meeting, Congressman Dicks asked the group to “give me a three-year plan.” The SWAT responded to his request a few months later by producing a three-year action plan that focused on two objectives – implementation of high-priority Forest Service road decommissioning in the upper watershed and completion of a comprehensive study of flooding in the lower watershed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In April 2007, shortly after Congressman Dicks became chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative formally requested an appropriation for the Forest Service to address the problems caused by roads in national forests in Washington state including places like the Skokomish watershed. The next month -- much to our surprise and great delight -- the subcommittee bill, or “Chairman’s Mark,” for fiscal year 2008 included $65 million for the Forest Service to establish and fund a new Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative (LRT).
Rather than earmarking funds for Washington, the Skokomish or other specific areas, the bill specified that the money was to be used anywhere in the National Forest System for “urgently needed road decommissioning…especially in areas where Forest Service roads may be contributing to water quality problems in streams and water bodies which support threatened, endangered or sensitive species....” Congress ended up appropriating $40 million for LRT in 2008 and, with leadership by Congressman Dicks, has increased that amount to $50 million in FY 2009 and $90 million in FY 2010.
Watershed Restoration in Action
The SWAT has worked closely with the Forest Service to identify and request LRT funding for road projects in the Skokomish watershed that closely fit the statutory criteria. The SWAT’s 3-Year Action Plan has provided a solid basis for LRT proposals that are consistent with Forest Service priorities and widely-supported in the local community.
Earlier this year, two dozen organizations and local residents involved in the SWAT sent a letter to the Regional Forester endorsing the Olympic National Forest’s LRT proposals in the Skokomish. The Region subsequently allocated $2.6 million for LRT work in the Skokomish, including $2.0 million for road decommissioning and another $600,000 for storm damage prevention. This may be the largest amount of LRT funding in the nation for a single watershed.
While focusing mostly on cutting off sediment coming from roads in the upper watershed, the SWAT has also collaborated on several other watershed restoration projects. Green Diamond Resources last year restored access to a mile of salmon spawning habitat by replacing an impassable culvert with a bridge. This year the Forest Service and the Skokomish Tribe are restoring large woody structures to a barren stretch of the South Fork Skokomish River, using a helicopter to air-lift 2,000 trees – root wads and all – from the upland forest to the river channel.
In addition, the Tribe is restoring 200 acres of estuary habitat at the mouth of the river by removing two miles of old dikes. All told, $6 million is being invested in restoration of the Skokomish watershed this year, creating dozens of jobs and boosting the economy as well as improving environmental quality.
The collaborative efforts and successes of the SWAT have not gone unnoticed. The Skokomish watershed was one of three restoration case studies featured in the U.S. exhibit at the World Forestry Congress in Buenos Aires last fall. The Olympic National Forest’s hard-working hydrologist, Robin Stoddard, received an Environmental Hero award from the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. And the Skokomish Grange – representing the long-suffering but determined farmers who live in the valley – gave the SWAT a certificate of appreciation for community service.
Restoration of the Skokomish is far from complete, but the Forest Service -- with help from the SWAT, Congressman Dicks, and the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative -- is making great headway in healing the headwaters of this important watershed.