The Conservation of Skookum Creek

Water is life. The watercourses that flow through the mountains, hills, and valleys of Cascadia nourish the land, support terrestrial populations (human and otherwise), and sustain the salmon that have been, literally, the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest since time immemorial. A network of sparkling tributaries feeds the branches of the Nooksack River, providing cool, clear water and offering refuge to the iconic salmon. Among these tributaries, there is one known as Skookum Creek.

Frosted Leaves, Skookum Creek. Photo by John D’Onofrio

The name Skookum Creek comes from “Chinook Jargon,” the ancient trade language that facilitated robust trade among indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest. Skookumchuck means mighty or powerful water. In both quantity and quality, Skookum Creek is the most critical and mighty tributary of the South Fork of the Nooksack River, which provides habitat for a variety of salmon, including spring Chinook, late fall Chinook, coho, pink, chum, and sockeye, as well as summer-and winter-run steelhead, bull trout, cutthroat, rainbow, and Dolly Varden trout. Spring Chinook and bull trout (a salmonoid species) are listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The viability of their habitat is at risk.

My grandparents echoed that idea all the time that water is like that blood that runs through your veins.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       – Lummi Elder Steve Solomon 

Bill James, master weaver and hereditary chief of the Lummi Nation, recorded an interview in  2018 for Revitalizing Cultural Knowledge and Honoring Sacred Waters: an Oral History of Life on the Nooksack River. His words set the stage for the need to conserve Skookum Creek. Chief James, now deceased, was born in 1944 and grew up in a Lummi village on the lower Nooksack River, not far from where it enters Bellingham Bay. “I was born and raised down there and used to listen to my grandfather talk…. everybody took care of everybody…. our people took care of the river.” 

Lummi Chief Bill James. Photo by Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

 

Chief James reminisced about the Nooksack River of his youth. “We used to harvest 10 to 12 tons of salmon a day out of our river. We used to jump off the bridge into the river, dive into the river, it was so deep there…. the river was clear at one time…you could see the bottom.”  By restricting fishing times, “we practiced conservation for future generations to come.”

Over time, Chief James saw disturbing changes in the Nooksack. “You look back at how the river has changed so much. Nowadays, it makes me cry to look at our river because I know why it’s the way it is. I know that the farmers are taking water. All the people … are taking the water out of our river… and the water level is decreasing. All the clear-cutting is causing siltation, and the river is getting shallow.”

Chief James recalled a time when the Green Giant company harvested peas and threw the waste into the river, creating a “gooey slime … thick on the bottom of the river. So, they killed a lot of salmon.”  

In a 2016 Tribal Voices Archive Project interview, Lummi Elder Steve Solomon summed up the role of the river in his people’s lives: “My grandparents echoed that idea all the time that water is like that blood that runs through your veins.  Water is the lifeblood of everything—the trees around you, the grass around you, everything it touches needs to be clean. That goes through to the salmon too.”  

The Twin Sisters Range rises above the headwaters of Skookum Creek. Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

Today, increased water temperature, sediment load, and decreased flow at critical times threaten the once bountiful aquatic habitat of the Nooksack’s South Fork, which is now identified as an impaired water body under the Federal and State Clean Water Acts. As the primary source of cool, clear water to the South Fork, Skookum Creek is well suited to help ameliorate these impairments.

While degradation of the South Fork ecosystem has a long and relentless history, last year, two traumatic events highlighted what a future in the grip of climate change holds for the South Fork without decisive intervention.

First, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Winter 2022 magazine, Northwest Treaty Tribes, reported a catastrophic adult Chinook salmon die-off: “After last summer’s record high temperatures and low water flow, Lummi Natural Resources staff discovered [in September] about 2,500 dead adult Chinook in the South Fork Nooksack River…. [T]he die-off was the result of severely degraded habitat quantity and function.”  While Chinook have struggled with degraded habitat for decades, “Climate change is the straw that broke the salmon’s back and resulted in this tragic die-off,” said Lummi Indian Business Council member Lisa Wilson.

Second, the January 15, 2022, Northwest Treaty Tribes publication reported that historic late November storms “delivered a torrent of sand and gravel [in Skookum Creek] that clogged the [Lummi] hatchery’s 36-inch intake and prevented fresh water and oxygen from reaching hatchery fish.” Lummi fishery staff said, “past logging practices have affected the amount of sediment and debris carried by the creek during storm events.” It also noted that “with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) and the Whatcom Land Trust (WLT), we’re looking at how to address some of these impacts to salmon.”

Arlecho Creek where it enters WLT property on its way to Skookum Creek. Photo by John D’Onofrio

In response to the river degradation, Whatcom Land Trust purchased 2147 forested acres along Skookum Creek and the adjacent Mustoe Marsh from Weyerhaeuser timber company in 2019-21 for 5.6 million dollars. Contributions came from individuals, a private foundation, WLT, state grants, and the Whatcom County Conservation Futures Fund. The acquisition relied on extensive information compiled by the Nooksack Indian Tribe Natural and Cultural Resources Department, the Lummi Nation Natural Resource Department, and WLT.

In support of the Skookum project, the Nature Conservancy wrote: “Protection and restoration of riparian forests within the Skookum Creek watershed will support salmon recovery and increase freshwater and forest resilience in the face of climate change…. This purchase … has outsized significance to the water quality, quantity, and habitat benefits to all the living communities that rely on the South Fork Nooksack.”  The Skookum Creek acquisition alone certainly cannot restore the health of the South Fork. Still, it is a step in the right direction—a complement to the extensive instream habitat improvements made by the Nooksacks and Lummis.

Beyond the reach of memory, this land has been home to indigenous people. A powerful interest shared by the Nooksacks, Lummis, and WLT motivated the purchase—an interest in the cold, clear creek water essential to the Nooksack’s South Fork and its salmon in the wildlife corridor connecting the upper Skookum Creek watershed to the lowland South Fork Valley, and in the effort to protect forests for carbon sequestration.

A Rich Cultural History

To learn about the traditional uses of Skookum Creek by indigenous peoples, I spoke with Jeremiah Johnny, a Nooksack tribal member, and employee of the Nooksack Indian Tribe Natural and Cultural Resources Department. Jeremiah had, in turn, learned from Nooksack elders. Coming from as far away as what is now Ferndale and Lynden, the Nooksacks traditionally gathered, often with friends and relations from neighboring tribes, for a weeks-long encampment on lower Skookum Creek. This gathering came to be called “Summer on the South Fork.” The people valued the cold, pure Skookum Creek water for ceremonial cleansing—“something to exhilarate.”

Jeremiah Johnny on the bridge across Skookum Creek at the fish hatchery. Photo by Rand Jack

Men pulled canoes up lower Skookum Creek to the summer encampment where women, children, and some men stayed to gather “anything and everything they could dry and store for the following winter,” including greens, blackberries and blueberries, Camus bulbs, bracken fern roots, and other roots, and salmon. As a youth, Jeremiah’s father discovered some old drying racks along lower Skookum Creek.

Beyond the summer encampment, the rest of the men, and boys coming into manhood, continued to pull the canoes upstream as far as the base of the Twin Sisters Range to hunt deer, elk, cougar, bear, and mountain goats, highly valued for their wool. Again, the mission was to dry and prepare the meat for the following winter. The tribe also maintained a permanent village with longhouses near the mouth of Skookum Creek and took King Salmon by dip nets and spears below the fish barrier at about 2.1 miles upstream. The Nooksack name for Skookum Creek was Nuxwaynaltxw—“Slaughterhouse, a place to dry, a place to prepare.”

Jeremiah related that a Nooksack elder’s grandfather told him that in the canyon about a mile above the mouth of Skookum Creek, “a giant fish lived, a fish that he believed was the mother of all salmon, and he had seen that fish go into a cave in the canyon.”

Saving the Land to Save the Fish

Jeremiah Johnny characterized Skookum Creek conservation as “a big win.” As a part of that big win, the WLT board and staff intend to work with the tribes to accommodate traditional practices on the Skookum Creek property, consistent with the Land Trust’s conservation and public access commitments.

Abandoned Road. Photo by Bryce Auburn

Whatcom Land Trust will manage the Skookum property to protect and restore the forests to old-growth conditions with mixed species and tree ages and to revitalize Skookum Creek’s natural hydraulic functions. WLT will plant and thin where necessary to promote forest health and nurture the growth of larger trees to shade the water, stabilize the banks, and provide for the recruitment of large instream wood.  Logging roads on the property not needed for forest conservation stewardship have been decommissioned and will be allowed to revert to nature. Currently, WLT is working with NSEA to complete stream surveys and with the Lummi Nation to design creek restoration plans to improve natural stream functions.

Because of its steep gradient, Skookum Creek is uniquely suited to help address problems of temperature, sediment, and flow in the South Fork. Thirty-three percent of Skookum’s watershed is above the seasonal snow zone, where the average temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The melt from seasonal snowpack accumulations in the upper watershed adds significantly to streamflow, providing an extended supply of cold water to the South Fork. An increase in shade due to trees left standing adds to this phenomenon. Because the upper South Fork watershed is of significantly lower elevation, this Skookum effect is critical.

Landslide contributing sediment to Skookum Creek. Photo by Jennifer Mackey

During times of low river flow, Skookum Creek supplies 22% of the South Fork’s volume, ensuring a continuous supply of the cold, clear water needed for salmon reproduction. In addition, the Lummi Nation’s Skookum Creek Hatchery, located near where Skookum Creek joins the South Fork, depends on Skookum’s water quality to pursue its mission of restoring the South Fork’s endangered spring Chinook run. Trees are the key to water quality.

Commercial forestry in the Skookum Creek basin has historically increased sediment load, accelerated runoff, and raised water temperature. Numerous landslides associated with logging and roads exist throughout the Skookum Creek watershed. Over a 40-year period, 263 landslides delivered sediment to streams in the Skookum Creek watershed. Of these, 75% were associated with timber harvest, landings, and roads. Recent analysis found that 33% of Skookum mass wasting events were attributable to logging roads. Allowing logging roads to return to nature will help normalize stream functions such as sediment input, channel formation, and in-stream wood recruitment, affecting water quality and quantity locally—and in the South Fork.

Intact upland forests affect the storage and movement of sediment, water, and wood through the watershed and downstream into the South Fork. Logging adds to sediment loads by increasing slope erosion and reducing soil root cohesion. Clear cuts reduce soil water storage capacity and increase runoff, increasing the frequency of floods that erode and transport sediments. The health of upland forests influences the amount and retention of upland snow and soil water storage capacity affecting water temperature and streamflow.  

Mature Riparian Forest. Photo by Jennifer Mackey

Permanent protection of Skookum’s riparian forest will result in taller, older trees that will provide more temperature-limiting shade, reduce bank erosion, enhance sediment filtering, and create a dependable supply of large, stable instream wood. Substantial instream wood significantly alters stream functions by increasing “hydraulic roughness,” which dissipates the erosive energy of the creek, thus slowing the water velocity and triggering the deposition of sediments. Substantial in-stream wood also helps create habitats such as deep pools and calm refuges. The benefits of restoring and protecting Skookum Creek’s forests flow directly down to the salmon habitat of the South Fork.

A Plethora of Wildlife

A healthy Skookum forest also enhances terrestrial habitat, providing a critical link in the Cascades-to-Chuckanut Natural Area, the last relatively undeveloped corridor connecting the Salish Sea to the Cascade Mountains. Elk, bear, cougar, deer, beaver, bobcat, and other species, increasingly likely to include wolves, inhabit the forested watershed, along with numerous smaller creatures essential to the ecosystem. Nooksack Elk utilize the corridor to move between winter foraging in the South Fork Valley and summer calving at the base of the Twin Sisters, as do black bears for seasonal migration.

Black Bear. Photo by John D’Onofrio

The Skookum property shares a border with The Nature Conservancy’s 520-acre Arlecho Creek Old Growth Preserve, which has one of the highest breeding densities for marbled murrelets in Washington. These small birds, referred to by the Audubon Society as “a strange, mysterious little seabird,” are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and as endangered in Washington State. Putting the Skookum property on an irreversible path to once again being a complex old-growth forest creates possibilities for seriously expanding Murrelet nesting habitat. The same is true for the northern spotted owl, which, like the marbled murrelet, is federally listed as threatened and Washington State listed as endangered. Spotted owl and marbled murrelet conservation is a long-term project. However, conserving the Skookum Forest could be a significant step toward bringing the species back.

In Response to Climate Change

Skookum Creek at high flow near the confluence of the South Fork. Photo by Rand Jack

 

While a seasonal wildlife migration corridor was a well-recognized attribute of the Skookum Creek acquisition, Professor Gretta Pecl of the University of Tasmania suggests a different kind of migration corridor potentially at play here, a relocation of populations from warmer to cooler habitat, a relocation driven by climate change. Dr. Pecl is a lead author of Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptability and Vulnerability, the Working Group II section of the 2022 report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In an email to me, she wrote: “The latest IPCC report … actually states that where species have been explored/examined on average 50% of species have been documented to be already shifting.”  The steep gradient of the Skookum Creek drainage runs from 400 feet to approximately 3,000 feet on WLT property and beyond on unprotected land to about 4,500 feet at the base of the Twin Sisters. Perhaps the conservation of a major segment of the drainage will help a procession of species relocate to suitable habitats for decades to come.

Sequestering carbon is another significant benefit of the Skookum Creek project. Dr. William Moomaw, the lead author of five reports by the IPCC, says: “[I]n order to meet our climate goals, we have to have greater sequestration by natural systems now. So that entails protecting the carbon stocks that we already have in forests, or at least a large enough fraction of them that they matter…. The most effective thing that we can do is to allow trees that are already planted, that are already growing, to continue growing to reach their full ecological potential, to store carbon, and develop a forest that has its full complement of environmental services.” This is exactly what WLT envisions for the Skookum property.

Frosted Ferns at Skookum Creek. Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

Recent research shows that younger forests, less than 140 years old, sequester carbon at a faster rate than old-growth forests. Virtually all of Skookum Forest fits into this category. Protected, it will have many decades, and for most of the trees, a century or more, of expeditious carbon sequestering.

And yet another public benefit of reviving and protecting this property will be a 5.3 miles trail in a splendid natural setting along an existing forest roadway with stunning views of the Twin Sisters Range.

Restoring forest health and ecological integrity, bringing back natural stream functions, upgrading salmon habitat, enhancing and protecting wildlife habitat, sequestering carbon, enabling traditional indigenous practices, and providing for nature-based recreating—these are the goals of the Skookum Creek project, and much of what a sustainable future here in the Pacific Northwest is all about.

For 40 years, Rand Jack has worked to conserve land.  He loves animals, trees, and grandkids.  He carves birds, bringing wood and animals together. He is on record as the oldest person ever to climb a strangler fig in Costa Rica from the inside.

One comment

  1. That Rand Jack is one special human being. What a great article!

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