An important question for both project implementers and their partners, particularly in the world of environmental conservation, is what is our impact? How can we know what difference our work is making? If you plant a tree today, what affect will it have five, 10, 15 years from now? American Forests’ new director of forest restoration, Jesse Buff, recently traveled to Washington state to witness one project’s impact firsthand.

Salmon hatchery in Issaquah, Washington

Salmon hatchery in Issaquah, Washington. Credit: jc.winkler/Flickr

More than 15 years ago, Global ReLeaf partnered with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) for the first time and over the next few years worked on numerous projects with them. NSEA’s mission is to restore wild salmon runs in Whatcom County, Washington, through the involvement of local communities, volunteers and landowners. Wild salmon are incredibly important to the Pacific Northwest’s culture and economy. They are an important economic driver for the state and its residents through commercial and recreational fishing and culturally important to local communities and Indian tribes. However, salmon streams have been severely degraded over time by poor agricultural practices, logging, pollution and dams that block their passage as they make their way upstream to spawn. One key to restoring traditional salmon runs is trees: You can’t have healthy salmon streams without healthy forest cover:

  • Trees help stabilize streams’ banks. Their root systems help keep the soil from eroding during flooding and periods of heavy rain.
  • Trees shade the water and with salmon, the cooler the water, the better. Lower water temperatures mean more dissolved oxygen in the water, and dissolved oxygen is essential to salmon survival.
  • Dead trees matter, too. Living trees are important, but when they die, they fall in the streams and provide structure that slows the water, forming cool and deep pools where salmon can rest in comfort.
N-SEA Executive Director Rachel Vasak displaying photos of Washington's Squalicum Creek

NSEA Executive Director Rachel Vasak displaying photos of Washington's Squalicum Creek before its restoration in the 1990s and early 2000s. Credit: American Forests

Planting seedlings along Landingstrip Creek in Washington

Planting seedlings along Landingstrip Creek in Washington. Credit: American Forests

Because of the numerous benefits of forests and trees along riverbanks, restoring these areas has been a priority of American Forests’ Global ReLeaf program since its inception. Jesse visited Bellingham, Washington, to see the results of some of the program’s earliest work and check on current work underway. Upon his arrival in Bellingham, NSEA’s executive director, Rachel Vasak, took Jesse to the site of a project American Forests started supporting in 1996: the restoration of Squalicum Creek. Upon arrival at the creek, Jesse immediately witnessed the results of that effort: A heavily shaded stream with healthy trees on its banks, protecting the precious salmon that live there. Rachel had brought along pictures of the site from 1995, when restoration began, and the difference was marked. Prior to restoration efforts, the stream ran through a degraded field; now, trees such as red-osier dogwood, red alder, black cottonwood, sitka spruce and western red cedar and other vegetation had transformed the landscape into a thriving ecosystem.

NSEA and American Forests are hoping to duplicate these results on a few other sites. After visiting Squalicum Creek, Rachel and Jesse traveled to the site of one of the newest projects, Landingstrip Creek. Along with partner Alcoa Foundation, American Forests is working with NSEA to restore 128 acres of the former dairy farm surrounding the creek. While watching Washington Conservation Corps members plant seedlings, Rachel recounted how restoring Landingstrip had been a long-running dream of hers. She had studied the creek before joining NSEA and knew that a culvert, or pipe, was blocking the salmon from proceeding upstream to viable habitat. After she joined NSEA, the opportunity arose to remove the culvert and construct a new stream channel, and she jumped at the chance. When NSEA rechanneled the stream, they diverted the water that had flowed through the culvert into a new channel, and the salmon came with it, reaching new waters that only their ancestors knew. Now, as Jesse saw, trees are being planted with American Forests’ support. And 15 years from now, visitors to Landingstrip Creek will be able to see what Jesse saw at Squalicum Creek: the impact that trees can have on local communities, their environments and their economies.

Each year, American Forests partners with dozens of organizations around the country, and the world, to help preserve and restore forests. Visit our Global ReLeaf page for information on the program’s past projects, and visit our Alcoa partnership page to discover additional program sites.

N-SEA Executive Director Rachel Vasak along Landingstrip Creek in Washington

NSEA Executive Director Rachel Vasak along Landingstrip Creek in Washington. Credit: American Forests