Tribe turns tide for Nisqually salmon
Seattle Times staff reporter
NISQUALLY DELTA — For years, the dikes stood like battlements between land and sea. But yesterday, the Nisqually Tribe gathered with song and blessings to give this former cow pasture back to the salmon.
The silver tide lapped ever closer as tribal children blessed the ground with a grass dance, which begins with thanks to the land for the gift of its use, and ends with a promise to leave it as the dancer found it.
It was a promise that took nearly 100 years to keep.
Removing the dikes is crucial to restoration of the Nisqually Delta estuary, which is key to the survival of juvenile chinook salmon.
The brackish water where the Nisqually River meets the sea is where juvenile salmon undergo the complex change from a freshwater smolt to an oceangoing fish.
The estuary is also an abundant source of food, with mud flats refreshed by the incoming tide.
Restoring the nourishing touch of the sea benefits not only the delta but the larger food web of Puget Sound, said David Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe.
The restoration project began in 1999, when the tribe purchased a 400-acre farm just west of Interstate 5 for $2.2 million. "We knew when we bought it we were not going to build on it; we wanted it for the salmon," said John C. Simmons, chairman of the tribe.
"The Nisqually people have lived in this delta valley for thousands of years. We moved our villages, timed to the run of the salmon. This land is important to us because it is important to the salmon."
The 31-acre restoration is just the beginning: In time, the tribe hopes to take out more dikes and restore another 110 acres of estuary for salmon.
The goal, long-term, is to double the natural production of chinook salmon in the delta.
Puget Sound chinook are listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Habitat restoration is a cornerstone of the recovery efforts that are needed to bring the runs back to harvestable levels.
The Nisqually Delta is a last, best chance in Puget Sound for restoration of an estuary for salmon: The estuaries at Seattle, Tacoma and Everett have all been developed as ports.
Around the Sound, 70 to 80 percent of the estuarine environment has already been lost.
It would have been the same at Nisqually, but for the tribe and a dedicated group of opponents who fought in the 1970s against construction of a second port for log exports at Nisqually.
Today, the land is still largely in its natural state, except for the dikes mounded up to convert saltwater marsh to dry land for pasture. About 35 percent of the estuary has been lost to diking.
The restoration work was completed last summer with a $178,000 grant from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
A partnership among the tribe, the landowner, the next-door Nisqually Wildlife Refuge and the state make the project a model for salmon restoration, said William Ruckelshaus, chairman of the funding board.
"If we stop fighting each other, it is amazing how much we can accomplish."
For the tribe of just 550 people, the restoration project is a major accomplishment.
"You start at the beginning, when the treaties were signed," said Georgiana Kautz, a tribal member and natural resource manager. "Our ancestors knew what they had to protect: the hunting, the fishing, the shellfish and our gathering rights. That was in 1855, and those values are still there today.
"Growing up on the reservation, we didn't have much, but the river was always there."
The tribe lost much of its land with the development of Fort Lewis and nontribal settlement of the valley.
"Our priority is to get a land base back to be able to build an economic base, and to bring the fish back," Kautz said.
The salmon are still central to the tribe's economy and cultural life. When the table was set yesterday for a feast to welcome the tide, there was no question as to the main dish: fall chinook, fresh from the Nisqually.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.