Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Fate of Pierce County’s steelhead in the balance

Joe Kane is no stranger to remote places.

In a previous life, as the executive director of the Nisqually Land Trust describes it, Kane was a writer and journalist. He was the first American to travel the full 4,200-mile length of the Amazon River. He got a book out of the adventure that you can now find on, well, Amazon.

“People paid me to go places and almost get killed,” Kane, 61, says with a slight laugh.

On this day, however, we’re in no risk of losing our lives. Or at least I convince myself that’s the case as Kane’s four-wheel-drive Toyota carefully winds its way up a steep logging road just outside Ashford.

Below us, somewhere among the trees, is the Busy Wild Creek, the primary spawning and rearing grounds for Nisqually steelhead. It’s what’s known as the headwaters — or, in laymen’s terms, the source — of the Mashel River, an important tributary to the Nisqually.

Pierce County’s steelhead population returns to this far-off, high-up location each year to continue the cycle of life. Lately, however, fewer and fewer have been making the journey. Kane tells me that a run that once saw some 10,000 fish turn the waters of the Mashel black on their way to Busy Wild Creek now has a declining yearly average of just 300.

The importance of this very specific spot has only recently been fully understood; a steelhead recovery study completed by the Nisqually Indian Tribe in early 2014 pinpointed protection of the steep slopes above the spot as critical to saving a species that finds itself on the federal list of threatened wildlife.

Kane tells me it’s the trees that will make the difference. There are three active logging permits here, issued to the East Coast-based Hancock Timber Resource Group — a $12 billion global timber investment management organization. If logging commences, Kane says, it stands to have disastrous implications for steelhead.

To put the potential problem in its most basic terms, when the trees come off these steep slopes, so too does the soil. When it rains — and it rains a lot up here — the soil in areas that have been logged slides straight into Busy Wild Creek. “Soil and sediment are the deadliest factors for spawning steelhead because they smother the spawning beds,” Kane explains.

It’s precisely this possibility that has lead the Nisqually Land Trust, an Olympia-based nonprofit conservancy organization, to champion a plan to buy 1,920 acres of the land surrounding Busy Wild Creek. Founded in 1989, the Nisqually Land Trust does its business in lands just like this by acquiring and protecting areas deemed critical to water and wildlife. When Kane started as executive director roughly a decade ago the nonprofit organization had the rights to about 800 acres. Today, it has over 5,000.

But it won’t be simple for the Nisqually Land Trust to get its hands on the land and timber surrounding Busy Wild Creek. Unfortunately, politics come into play.

The deal, which will require Hancock to be paid in the ballpark of $7 million, hinges on money in a state capital budget allocation for the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund. The Nisqually Land Trust’s grant application through this fund calls for $6.5 million, or about 90 percent of the cost. The remaining money will come from Pierce County and from the federal government, through its community-forest program. Hancock has given the Nisqually Land Trust until the middle of next year to buy them out.

While the money for the Busy Wild Creek project was included in initial versions of the governor’s budget and the House’s, the Senate’s PSAR allocation was about half the size. Most importantly, it put a freeze on all land acquisitions.

It’s part of an ongoing ideological debate among lawmakers over whether the state should acquire more land while it’s having trouble maintaining what it already has.

According to Kane, what lawmakers stuck in this frame of mind are failing to realize is the difference between what huge state agencies such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife or Department of Natural Resources do and how nonprofit conservancy groups that depend on state funding operate. And while he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the final version of the capital budget will be kind to the Busy Wild Creek plan, which is ranked No. 1 on the PSAR list of regional priorities, he’s also worried.

“This isn’t a willy-nilly project,” Kane tells me. “The science is sound. This is exactly the kind of project that needs public funding.”

“We can’t make a mistake,” he continues, his back to the expansive forest that stands to make or break Pierce County’s steelhead population. “When you have 300 fish left, everything counts.”

Let’s hope lawmakers in Olympia will find a way to agree.