The Loma Prietan - November/December 2011


Fish Swim in Trees

by Karen Maki

In the shadow of Mount Lassen, clearcutting in the Battle Creek Watershed is undermining efforts to re-introduce salmon. Photo: Jack Ellwanger.
In the shadow of Mount Lassen, clearcutting in the Battle Creek Watershed is undermining efforts to re-introduce salmon. Photo: Jack Ellwanger.

“I witnessed 2.1 million acre-feet of water being diverted from the forested Trinity River watershed for agriculture,” Jack Ellwanger explained to me and other members of the Chapter’s Forest Protection Committee. “Fish leaped nearly ten feet in the air trying to get over the dam. Others slammed into steel doors trying to get past the barriers. Slam, slam, all night long. It was a bone chilling, macabre experience. “ The power and the beauty of the salmon, their determination to swim upstream to spawn, inspired Jack.

Ellwanger is founder of the Pelican Network, an organization which promotes environmental sustainability by advancing natural and cultural history education. He told us that much of the water from northern California is dammed and diverted south for agriculture, hydroelectricity, and urban residents. The water diversion prevents salmon from reaching their upstream spawning habitat. Without spawning salmon, forest soils are no longer being fertilized by their nitrogen-rich bodies. A majority of the nitrogen in the northwest is from the ocean, Jack explained to us. You might say, “Trees grow on fish.” (To try to make up for the declining fish populations, salmon are bred in hatcheries. This, however, does nothing for the forest.)

Help is on the way! The federal and the state governments are spending $128 million to restore endangered salmon and steelhead trout to 48 miles of water along Battle Creek, whose headwaters are on Mount Lassen. The Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project, the largest of its kind in the nation, has already removed six dams and is constructing passages for fish around the other five, increasing spawning in the watershed.

The Left Hand vs. the Right Hand

Not so fast! To thrive, salmon require cool, shaded waters without sediment or herbicide. But a June 19th article in the Sacramento Bee revealed that government agencies are working at cross purposes: “At the same time, another arm of state government is allowing clear-cut logging on thousands of acres just upstream.” Google maps of the region show the watershed already riddled with clear-cuts, and more harvest plans are in the works. Battle Creek water from mountain snowmelt is now murky with logging runoff and contaminated with the herbicides that logging company Sierra Pacific Industries uses to kill “noncash vegetation.”

Although some say that the logging in the Battle Creek watershed follows the state’s Forest Practices Act, many environmentalists believe that the cumulative impact of so many clear-cuts - to wildlife, the environment, and even the human community - is not being properly assessed. According to the Sacramento Bee, some scientists say these clearcuts could jeopardize the restoration project.

Jack Ellwanger and the 5000-member Pelican Network have begun to fight back. They have asked Governor Brown and California Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird to stop the clearcutting of Battle Creek. Already the governor has convened an internal study team to review timber harvest plans for Battle Creek and indicated he will initiate a public review of timber harvests.

The Sierra Club’s Resilient Habitat Campaign and Pelican Network are parts of a coalition of organizations working hard to halt clearcutting in Battle Creek. That coalition has pressed the governor and Secretary Laird to stop clearcutting. The Resilient Habitat Campaign has identified the Sierra Nevada as one of ten areas that the Club seeks to buffer from the impact of climate change.           

Karen Maki is Chair of the Chapter’s Forest Protection Committee.