Western Rivers Conservancy pushed ahead this month in our effort to create a major cold-water salmon sanctuary in the heart of the Klamath-Siskiyou, one of the earth’s biodiversity hotspots. We successfully completed our third land acquisition on the Klamath River and Blue Creek, which brings us three-quarters of the way toward conserving 47,000 acres in partnership with the Yurok, California’s largest Native American tribe. The acquisition adds 6,479 acres of vital forest and riverland to the Blue Creek Salmon Sanctuary, as well as extensive forestland to the recently created Yurok Tribal Community Forest.
At the heart of this project is Blue Creek, the most important cold-water tributary on the lower Klamath River. Blue Creek flows cold and clear from remote headwaters protected high in the Siskiyou Wilderness and has been sacred to the Yurok since time immemorial. In summer, when the Klamath River can reach temperatures in the high seventies—lethal conditions for salmon and steelhead—Blue Creek remains significantly colder. Every migrating Chinook spawner holds in Blue Creek, lowering its body temperature by about eight degrees Fahrenheit, before continuing upstream. Without the cold-water refuge Blue Creek provides, the Klamath’s summer- and fall-run fish would likely die before reaching their spawning beds in the upper river. In no small way, the health of the largest salmon stream in the Klamath-Siskiyou, and the survival of the region’s keystone species, hinge on the health of Blue Creek. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to protect this all-important stream.
WRC’s efforts on the Klamath will conserve the entire lower Blue Creek watershed and protect habitat for rare Klamath-Siskiyou wildlife like Humboldt Marten, northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. It will link important habitat within a globally significant ecoregion and return a sacred homeland to the Yurok, which have deep cultural and spiritual interests in keeping Blue Creek and the Klamath healthy.
WRC has been working on this project since 2008, and our most recent purchase puts us well into the home stretch. But there is still work to do. To date, 22,237 acres are in Yurok hands, while WRC owns 14,968 acres. WRC will own and manage these lands, as well as future acquisitions, until they can be conveyed to the Tribe. While WRC holds title to the land, the forests will be managed by the Yurok to enhance salmon recovery, improve old-growth habitat and revitalize the Yurok economy. Once we’ve conveyed all the land to the Tribe, it will continue to manage it in line with our shared conservation vision.
To fund a project of this scale, WRC has pioneered new ground in conservation finance, tapping nontraditional sources such as New Markets Tax Credits and carbon offsets sales. These and other private sources have provided more than half of the $54 million needed to purchase the land. Yet we still must still raise over $16 million to complete the project.
Once our efforts at Blue Creek are finished, the Klamath-Siskiyou will be home to one of the most important salmon sanctuaries on the West Coast. Sixteen miles upstream from the Pacific, this refuge will help ensure that salmon, steelhead and the region’s remarkable wildlife have a safe haven forever.