TNC land purchase holds promise for salmon

Charlie Unkefer
Nature Conservancy project co-director Amy Hoss, standing on a knoll above Big Springs Creek, discusses the importance of the creek to the overall effort of restoring endangered salmon populations. “It’s now or never for the coho,” said Hoss.

Last week’s announcement by the Nature Conservancy (TNC), the country’s largest non-profit environmental organization, that it had purchased the 4,136 acre Shasta Big Springs Ranch was big news, both locally and statewide, with in depth coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times and Sacramento Bee. 

The acquisition of the ranch, which is located in the Shasta Valley by the Louie Road bridge, is heralded by fisheries biologists, hydrologists and restoration advocates as a move which could have a “resounding impact on salmon, steelhead and other important species throughout the Klamath Basin,” according to a TNC press release.

Deemed a possible “silver bullet” in addressing the alarming decline in Klamath River coho salmon populations in particular, the ranch, which sold for $14.2 million, is  deemed valuable because it contains the entire 2.2 mile section of Big Springs Creek,  a  source of cold, nutrient-rich water that is critical for salmon spawning and rearing.

“Right now, water comes into the upper reaches of Big Springs Creek at temperatures between 52F and 54F, and  by the time it gets to  the confluence of the Shasta River, only 2.2 miles downstream, it is as high as 75F,” explained Amy Hoss, co-director of  TNC’s Klamath River Project. “Our goal here is to restore the creek so the water does not heat up so much.”    

Records indicate that as recently as the 1930s, roughly half of the salmon in the entire Klamath basin came from the Shasta River, despite the fact that, on average, this watershed  contributes only one percent of the water supply to the entire Klamath river system.  Add to that the fact Big Springs Creek alone is  estimated to provide 70% of the entire water to the Shasta and the overall significance of the acquisition becomes apparent.

Right now, hopes remain high that restoration of Big Springs Creek, which has been widened and denuded due to poor grazing practices, could improve water temperatures as much as 20 miles downstream.

Siskiyou County Supervisor Marcia Armstrong applauded TNC on their restoration efforts, also acknowledging the stewardship of the Louie family, who owned the parcel for several generations prior to its sale in the 1980s. She also noted    the efforts of other ranchers and organizations such as the Shasta Valley Resource Conservation District, who have worked to improve fish passage and water quality in the Shasta River.  She cited, in particular, the removal of the Arauja Dam and its subsequent replacement with a fish friendly irrigation pumping system as a good example of the important work being done in the valley.

In referring to the deteriorated conditions of Big Springs Creek, Armstrong said, “Unfortunately, the land was not kept up in this case.”

With only 30 coho counted at the mouth of the Shasta this year, time is of the essence. “It’s now or never for the coho,” said Hoss, who is hopeful that through their restoration work, the TNC ranch purchase will have a significant and measureable effect on the river habit and, ultimately, reverse the downward spiralling trend. 

“We have had the best folks in the business working with us, and they are really excited about the possibilities this particular land acquisition holds,” said Hoss.

TNC says it will be working alongside scientists from UC Davis’s Center for Watershed Sciences, California’s Department of Fish and Game and California Trout to create efficient water-use methods that will support both ranching and the recovery of salmon in the drought-plagued region. 

In addition to the recent ranch purchase, TNC acquired a 407 acre conservation easement and also owns the adjacent Nelson ranch property, which they purchased in 2005. 

For TNC Klamath River Project co-director George Stroud, there are several features of the project which he finds particularly noteworthy. He emphasized, in particular, that he sees the project as being “solution based,” noting that the prospects for seeing positive results appear good and that the project stands to benefit both the ranching and conservation communities.          

Stroud also noted that the Big Springs Ranch purchase  could bring environmental contracts to the region and infuse much need funds into the local economy. He cited fence contracts as one example.  

Stroud also emphasized that the ranch will remain open to grazing and cited what he sees as the benefits of the practice.  

“Grazing can be used as a tool to benefit natural resources,” said Stroud, noting that a complete cessation  could subject the land to possible star thistle infestations and increase the risk of fire danger. “Remember, the land has been grazed for over a hundred years out here,” said Stroud.  

“There  will still be grazing on the ranch with a variety of configurations that avoid in river damage and respects the needs to provide income and have a productive ranch,” added Stroud.

Speaking about the TNC’s plan for the newly acquired property, Hoss said, “Our first goal is to get a big riparian fence up.  After that, we will begin some native planting.”  

Hoss continued, “The river gets wide from years of cattle trampling it. If we can let the banks regenerate, getting it narrower and quicker, that will really keep the water from heating up,” added Hoss.

Stroud added that   the installation of an improved irrigation system and a reduction of tailwater, the run off caused by irrigation that returns to the river, would also be addressed.

A key component to their success, noted Stroud,  will be a monitoring program  to ensure success as the program evolves. Both directors noted the efforts of TNC Biologists Chris Babcock and Ada Fowler, as well as UC Davis Biologist Carson Jefferies, as being instrumental in the work that preceeded the land purchase.

“When Carson (Jefferies) fist  began snorkeling in the Shasta River on Nelson Ranch, we started to notice that the river was hottest at 6 a.m. From that, we concluded that one section of Big Springs Creek was really heating up, and we were getting that slug of water at about the same time every day.”  Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, the early work at Nelson ranch proved instrumental to TNC’s overall efforts.

Reduced to its simplest terms, TNC’s objectives are clear.  “We want to get the coho off of the brink of extinction and improve the quality of the river,” concluded Hoss.

TNC worldwide

Currently standing as the largest environmental non-profit by assets and revenue in the US, The Nature Conservancy has an ongoing land acquisition program that it implements as a means of restoring endangered land, river and ocean eco-systems. In the US alone, TNC owns over 15 million acres of land and has been dedicated to its restoration goals since its inception in 1951. 

Worldwide, TNC has protected 119 million acres of land, 5,000 miles of river and implemented over 100 marine conservation projects.

For more than a decade, TNC’s work has been guided by a framework called “Conservation by Design,” which is a systematic approach that determines where to work, what to conserve and  what strategies will work best. It is a collaborative, science-based approach with key analytical methods used to assess and plan actions.