TOPICS > Science

Salmon Streams’ Struggle Continues 40 Years After Clean Water Act

May 22, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, America’s waterways nearly four decades after passage of the Clean Water Act.

Our story comes from special correspondent Hedrick Smith. It was drawn from his recent “Frontline” project called “Poisoned Waters.” He reports from the Pacific Northwest, where salmon streams are endangered by manmade problems.

HEDRICK SMITH, Special Correspondent: I saw the impact of the human footprint up close here in the Skagit River delta, about 80 miles north of Seattle.

BRIAN CLADOOSBY, chairman, Swinomish tribe: We can fish from here way up the Skagit, but we just choose to fish in this location because it’s a nice, long drift.

HEDRICK SMITH: Brian Cladoosby is chairman of the Swinomish Indian tribe. Every fall, he and his tribal members head out on the Skagit River, the biggest source of salmon in all of Puget Sound.

For generations, even centuries, the Swinomish and other tribes have depended on salmon fishing for their livelihoods.

BRIAN CLADOOSBY: I guess the salmon to us was like the buffalo to the natives in the Midwest and the Great Plains. It is something that God has put here for us to allow us to sustain ourselves.

Salmon have disappeared

HEDRICK SMITH: Cladoosby's problem is that the salmon here have gone the way of the buffalo. King salmon are now down to only about 5 percent to 10 percent of historic levels. They're officially listed as endangered.

BRIAN CLADOOSBY: Nobody can make a living anymore out of strictly salmon.

HEDRICK SMITH: The salmon here, according to the tribe and state scientists, are victims of economic development along the Skagit: logging, hydro-electric dams, and agriculture which have wiped out much of the habitat that salmon need to spawn and grow.

BRIAN CLADOOSBY: If you took a map of the Skagit before the white man came here in the 1850s, and you see where the salmon used to go, you would be surprised how many stream miles they had here on the Skagit.

That's why the Skagit was able to produce millions and millions and millions of fish. When the non-Indians came, they basically diked and cut off all that habitat.

HEDRICK SMITH: Through ingenuity and hard work, the settlers built an extensive system of dikes as a seawall and turned the water-soaked silt into incredibly productive farmland.

CURTIS JOHNSON, seed farmer: What many people don't realize is this is a sub-tidal valley. Think Holland. There would be 30,000 of these acres that we're standing on, including where we're standing right here, that would be underwater at high tide, were it not for the dikes.

HEDRICK SMITH: So the dikes are keeping the saltwater out?

CURTIS JOHNSON: Keeping the saltwater off of the delta.

HEDRICK SMITH: The Johnson family has been farming the delta for five generations and regulating water in the sub-tidal Skagit delta is vital to their farms. I got an earful from Curtis Johnson and his brothers about the salmon problem, which they say was caused by the Indians themselves.

CURTIS JOHNSON: The salmon have declined simply because they kill them faster than they can reproduce.

HEDRICK SMITH: So you're saying the problem is over-fishing. It's not estuary, it's not diking?

CURTIS JOHNSON: Absolutely. These people exterminated their resource, and now I'm the bad guy. I'm the guy who's to blame. Why in hell don't I quit farming and let them use my land to raise fish on?

HEDRICK SMITH: What we're seeing here is a collision of two cultures, a collision of two industries, if you will, and two ways of life.

CURTIS JOHNSON: Two natural resource industries are on a collision course.

Collision of cultures

HEDRICK SMITH: This cultural and economic collision landed in court. The tribe filed suit to remove tidal gates in one of the seawall dikes to recover old salmon habitat. A federal judge ruled firmly in favor of the tribe, pushing the two sides to strike a limited deal that will be tricky to carry out, but prospects are dim for negotiating a wider settlement.

I mean, if you're going to negotiate with somebody, there's got to be trust, doesn't there? I mean, if you're going to do it, I mean, is trust a problem?

BRIAN CLADOOSBY: It is. It is not easy, and I think you nailed it when you said "trust." I mean, there's not too much trust right now.

HEDRICK SMITH: Is there any trust left? It sounds like you don't trust them and they don't trust you.

CURTIS JOHNSON: There is no trust between me and them, none, zero.

HEDRICK SMITH: Entrenched economic interests can seem immovable, but 150 miles south of Skagit, along the Nisqually River, I learned that resolving our pollution problems can be achieved by individual initiative and cooperation among feuding parties, like tribes and farmers.

On the Nisqually, I caught up with two local leaders who'd been on opposing sides: tribal elder Billy Frank and Jim Wilcox, a large farm owner.

Like the Skagit up north, this river was disrupted by logging, dams, and large farming operations, and the salmon population was decimated. Billy Frank had grown up fighting for Indian fishing rights, protesting that the white establishment was blocking the Indians from getting their fair share of the fish.

BILLY FRANK, Nisqually tribal leader: They didn't want no Indians catching any of their fish. And so that was what the fight was all about, and we took it to them. We took it to them. We, you know, went to jail over 50, 80 times.

HEDRICK SMITH: Finding common ground with the tribes to restore the river and its salmon didn't come naturally to farmers like Jim Wilcox, who ran a huge, $300 million dairy farm on the Nisqually.

JIM WILCOX, Wilcox Farms: I went to school with a lot of members of the Nisqually tribe. We also employed Native Americans, and they were good workers. But kind of the prevailing attitude was that, you know, most of the Indians were beset by alcohol problems, that you couldn't depend on them, that they never would keep an appointment.

Farmers vs. tribes

HEDRICK SMITH: A 1974 landmark federal court decision by Judge George Boldt upheld the Indian fishing rights. Billy Frank started pushing to force the area's economic stakeholders into a negotiation over how best to protect the river.

The state set up the Nisqually task force, but there was little trust, and prospects for success were poor.

When the Nisqually River Task Force was formed, what did you think? What was your reaction?

JIM WILCOX: I was scared out of my wits.


JIM WILCOX: I was a farmer, and I just wanted to keep farming. And I considered that the task force would come up with just a lot more regulations that would make it even more difficult for me to continue farming and, ultimately, force me out.

HEDRICK SMITH: So why did you take part in the Nisqually River Task Force?

JIM WILCOX: Out of a feeling of fear that I had to be an advocate for our farm. There was kind of a coalition that we ultimately formed in the beginning of landowners and timber companies and farmers.

HEDRICK SMITH: Weyerhaeuser one of them?


HEDRICK SMITH: And the coalition was intended to do what?

JIM WILCOX: Block anything that the task force could come up with.

BILLY FRANK: You know, they tried to kill the task force.

HEDRICK SMITH: After many confrontational meetings, the task force was deadlocked. Then, Billy Frank made a surprise move.

JIM WILCOX: I'll never forget the night. I think it was a particularly stormy session. Everybody was emotional. The tempers flared. And Billy Frank got up. And as I say, I'll never forget this. And he said, he said, "We've got to stop this right now."

He said, "I want everybody to know that we want Weyerhaeuser Timber Company to continue to operate and own land along the river. We want Wilcox Farms to keep farming. We don't want to do anything that's going to put them out of business. We want other farmers to stay along the river."

BILLY FRANK: I never gave up on any of these people. I never gave up on Jim or any of our leaders up and down the watershed. I said, "You know, we have to be together."

JIM WILCOX: I recognized that this was a turning point and that we could probably complete the process in a spirit of cooperation, at least I hoped that's what could happen.

Improvements have come slowly

HEDRICK SMITH: With a new foundation of trust, the deadlock broke. And in time, the task force, supported by state funding, but driven by local leadership, developed a restoration plan for the Nisqually.

Getting tidal wetlands back was the key. Billy Frank found a few farmers willing to sell choice land to the tribe. The tribe tore down the dikes and flooded the land with seawater.

JIM WILCOX: The dikes are already opened. The water goes right up to the freeway behind us here, and so this is an estuary. The tide comes in, and there's little salmon fishing -- swimming all over here.

HEDRICK SMITH: So in the 20 years or more since the Nisqually task force was set up, can you see improvements in the river...


HEDRICK SMITH: ... in the wildlife, in the salmon coming back?

BILLY FRANK: Yes, absolutely. The eagles, the habitat, the beavers are coming back. The little animals that lived on this watershed, they're coming back. You know, these are very important life on the estuary and the ecosystem of a watershed.

HEDRICK SMITH: The Nisqually story is an object lesson that repairing the damage that we humans have done to Mother Nature requires taking responsibility and finding common ground.