By Melanie Friedel, American Forests

This is one of an 11-part blog series detailing the extensive work we are doing with the Alcoa Foundation. You can find out more here.

Credit: Patrick McNally

This year, American Forests and the Alcoa Foundation are teaming up with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) and their community partners in the Whatcom County Stream Stewards Project. We have been working with the goal of restoring riparian habitat in Bellingham, Wash., since 1999! We intend to locate and restore threatened ecosystems and watersheds, and in the next year our joint efforts with Alcoa and the NSEA will plant over 6,000 trees for this project. This includes a variety of coniferous and deciduous species across 10 acres of land.

Why are we doing this? Well, stream banks are degrading, and these streams are home to the salmon essential to this ecosystem, as well as the health, culture and economy of Whatcom County. It’s not just a theory: The salmon population is decreasing rapidly — the Chinook and steelhead species are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The reasons behind this tragedy range from climate change and increasing temperatures to industrial, agricultural and urban development. Warmer weather means warmer water, and warm water holds less dissolved oxygen, which fish need to breathe. When water is low on dissolved oxygen, not only can fish not breathe, but their metabolism speeds up, causing them to run out of energy and preventing them from completing their migration journeys upstream. On top of all this, warm water is a breeding ground for pathogens that can infect and kill fish.

But it doesn’t stop there. Many of the streams they call home are dammed, creating physical barriers that block fish migrations, while also depriving downstream habitats from the sediment and nutrients they need. Overexploitation by the fishing industry, plant loss and habitat destruction from land development and reformed waterways are just a few of the disturbances to wildlife in this riparian habitat.

We have a personal investment in headwaters of the streams this project focuses on, and we’ve worked there before, planting trees at small and remote streams, striving to restore water quality and to stabilize the habitat.

There is considerable proof that riparian buffers provide the necessary habitat for keystone species. Trees help filter sediment and trap pollutants from nearby industry and agriculture. Root systems allow for speedy groundwater recharge and lower the risk of runoff and flooding. The trunks and canopies of trees provide breeding grounds, shelter and food for wildlife, as well as cooling the water through the shade they provide, preventing the overheating that increases mortality.

By working with our partners and planting native trees, we will provide all these benefits to these threatened ecosystems. One of the special things about the NSEA is its huge volunteer base and widespread support for its mission. Throughout the year, the NSEA will hold 15 work parties with help from a total of 2,000 volunteers, planting an annual total of 6,000 native trees and shrubs.

You can help by supporting our mission and our work with the Alcoa Foundation and the NSEA to save salmon and so much more. We have already planted over a million trees with Alcoa, and between October and April (when the weather conditions are favorable for new trees) we will be planting even more with this project. Check back in the fall for more details on work parties and hands-on participation, but in the meantime, join us in our efforts to restore forests.