The Wild Nooksack: North and Middle Forks

Salmon, Old Growth and Eagles: The Iconic Landscape of Whatcom County

Flowing through steep ravines graced with some of the last old growth in Whatcom County, the basins of the North and Middle Forks of the Nooksack River represent the iconic Pacific Northwest landscape. With the North Fork being the northernmost river in the State of Washington, it is also one of the wildest rivers in the area. Along with old growth forests, thousands of salmon utilize these waters at the end of their life cycle resulting in an amazing number of eagles flocking to the area. Salmon, old growth forests and eagles; what could be more representative of the Pacific Northwest we love?

Becoming the river we know today

Originating in what is now known as the Mount Baker Wilderness, native tribes in the area have been utilizing the Nooksack River since before European settlers came to the region. The cold, fresh water creates the perfect habitat for salmon which have become an important symbol representing the Pacific Northwest. The fertile soil and quality timber also allowed many people to make a good living in this beautiful region. Unfortunately, as all types of human activity along the river began to increase over time, the abundance and quality of habitat for all of the native species that utilize the river and surrounding forests began to decrease. Resettlement and decline of salmon abundance due to habitat loss has been damaging not only for this sacred symbol of the area, but also for the economy surrounding Northwest salmon.

Whatcom Land Trust has identified the area surrounding the North and Middle Forks as one of seven priority zones in which they focus their conservation efforts. 55% of this land is managed either for conservation or recreation purposes. Though just 1% of this area is owned and protected by either Whatcom Land Trust or Whatcom County Parks, there is quite a high concentration of protected properties along the river. The rest of the land is either private working forests or privately owned residential land. This intermixed ownership along the North and Middle Forks create an interesting challenge for Whatcom Land Trust. Balancing habitat protection with the interests of the tribes, local community members and private property owners is something the Trust takes pride in doing.

Ecological Interconnectedness

The complex interconnectedness of this ecosystem feature salmon at the center of the web. Water quality and quantity is incredibly crucial for prosperous salmon activity. The waters of Nooksack must be clear, have high oxygen levels, and be cold year round in order for the salmon to successfully live out their life cycle.

Water quality heavily depends on the riparian habitat- the abundance of large trees along the riverbanks. Large trees next to the river prevent erosion and provide shade for the river to help the water to stay cold. Some of these trees will eventually fall from natural causes and in turn create log jams in the river which provide safe spots in the gravel for salmon to lay their eggs away from predators. Once the fry (young salmon) emerge from the gravel, it usually takes about a year of rearing in the stream until they swim to the ocean. After maturing in the ocean, the salmon then return to the exact stream in which they were born. They then spawn and die and their carcasses provide nutrients for a host of wildlife in the area.

Mature forests provide excellent conditions for salmon, but they also allow many of the other native animals to thrive in this area. Bear, elk, coyote, eagles, beaver, otters and bobcat are a few of the well-known species which thrive in mature forests. Beaver build dams that provide excellent shelter for young salmon to hide and grow. In the winter eagles and other wildlife feast on spawned salmon carcasses. The abundance of food attracts thousands of eagles every year and is quite a sight to see.

Logging, invasives and development threats

Due to the incredible amount of quality timber, it is no surprise that the areas surrounding the North and Middle Forks of the Nooksack are heavily impacted by commercial timber harvests. Right now about 15% of the two basins are privately-owned working forest land. It is crucial that we continue to balance watershed protections with the need for natural resources such as timber. Responsible logging practices will help with the survival of both wildlife and the timber industry in this area.

Invasive species such as English ivy, Himalayan blackberry, English holly and Scotch broom are major risks to the health and diversity of the riparian habitat along the North and Middle Forks. These non-native species take over and push out native plants which the salmon, eagles and other iconic species rely on. Restoration and continuous management of the land help to mitigate the invasive species and keep them at bay.

A diversion dam located several miles up the Middle Fork of the Nooksack has for decades created issues for salmon and other fish species attempting to move upstream to rear and spawn. This dam has been used by the City of Bellingham since 1962 to divert water into its water supply system. The dam has no infrastructure for fish passage and studies show fish ladders may not adequately improve migration numbers. A conceptual re-design of the diversion dam is being proposed by the City of Bellingham which would re-open 26 miles of river for fish to utilize throughout their life cycle. As a landowner and advocate for salmon habitat restoration, Whatcom Land Trust would like to see the removal of this dam and restoration of the surrounding riparian habitat. In addition, the removal of this dam is the #1 restoration goal in the Water Resource Inventory Area No.1 (WRIA 1).

Whatcom Land Trust protects salmon (and so much more)

Whatcom Land Trust either owns or holds conservation easements on over 30 properties in the watersheds of the North and Middle Forks. This priority area has the greatest concentration of Whatcom Land Trust properties in Whatcom County because the Trust seeks solutions which balance the needs of landowners, species and natural systems. The Trust also works to encourage responsible, low-impact recreation in the area.

Through voluntary acquisition and the securing of conservation easements, the Trust is able to fulfill its mission while also promoting stewardship on the land. By working to restore and protect these properties, both native habitat and people are able to cohesively flourish. The Trust does this by creating positive relationships with private landowners in this area as well as all other areas of Whatcom County. It is something Whatcom Land Trust strives for because positive relationships create positive outcomes for nature, land and people. This satisfies the shared vision of having a healthy, diverse and prosperous Whatcom County for generations to come.

Partners protecting the river

Along with private landowners, the Trust also works with the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe and other nonprofit organizations to improve conditions for prosperous salmon runs along the North and Middle Forks. Whatcom County Parks is an important partner for the Trust by working together to steward the land. On many of our properties, Washington State Department of Natural Resources is our neighbor and we work together to coordinate recreational planning and healthy forest management practices. Whatcom Land Trust also hosts work parties on our properties so conservation minded citizens from all over the county can experience the landscape, learn about its conservation features and help to restore the land.

Iconic Forever

The landscape surrounding the North and Middle Forks of the Nooksack River is some of the wildest in Whatcom County. A rich history allows us to look back and see what the river once was, what it is today, and what it has the potential to be in the future. Although the conservation issues it faces are challenging this area provides critical habitat for the many species we cherish. Whatcom Land Trust and its partners have worked diligently for decades to protect land along the North and Middle Forks. With permanent protections in place mature forests, prosperous salmon runs and healthy eagle populations remind us of our shared responsibility to protect this landscape so that it will continue to grow healthy and iconic forever.

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