Klamath RiverBlue Creek

Conserving a cold-water lifeline for salmon on California’s Redwood Coast

Klamath River Blue Creek
Blue Creek flows cold and clear from high in the Siskiyou Mountains of northern California and meets the Klamath River 16 miles upstream from the mouth. It is the first source of cold water that salmon and steelhead encounter on their migration inland and provides these fish a critical cold-water refuge so they can complete their journeys inland to spawn. It is the lifeline to the Klamath River in the heart of the California redwoods.
Photography | Dave Jensen
Klamath River Blue Creek
Nearly every salmon that returns to the Klamath to spawn holds in Blue Creek, lowering its body temperature by an average of eight degrees.
Photography | Thomas Dunklin
Klamath River Blue Creek
Overlooking the Klamath River.
Photography | Dave Jensen
Klamath River Blue Creek
When the Klamath is stressed by low flows and warm temperatures, Blue Creek becomes the lower river's most important cold-water refuge for returning salmon and steelhead.
Photography | Peter Marbach
Klamath River Blue Creek
The Blue Pool, at the Klamath/Blue Creek confluence, remains ice cold throughout the year.
Photography | Dave Jensen
Klamath River Blue Creek
In partnership with the Yurok Tribe, WRC is conserving the entire lower Blue Creek watershed to create a cold-water salmon sanctuary. The upper watershed is already protected by the Siskiyou Wilderness Area.
Photography | Thomas Dunklin
Humboldt marten
WRC's work on the Klamath will benefit imperiled animals like marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl and Humboldt marten (pictured)
Photography | Daryl L. Hunter
Klamath River Blue Creek
Overlooking the Klamath River.
Photography | Peter Marbach

In February 2018, following a ten-year effort, Western Rivers Conservancy succeeded in creating a salmon sanctuary at Blue Creek, the most important cold-water tributary to California’s Klamath River. We have now ensured Blue Creek is protected from the Siskiyou Wilderness all the way to its confluence with the Klamath River. In the process we returned sacred ancestral homelands to California’s Yurok Tribe, which will manage the lands to recover forests that were harvested for decades and to improve habitat for the incredible fish and wildlife of the Klamath River and the greater Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion.

Protecting Blue Creek is the backbone of our larger effort in partnership with the Yurok Tribe to conserve over 47,000 acres of temperate rainforest along the Klamath River by creating both the salmon sanctuary and a sustainable community forest to be owned and managed by the tribe.

The Importance of Blue Creek

The Klamath was once the third largest producer of salmon on the West Coast. Sadly, its great runs of Chinook, coho and steelhead have been reduced by hydropower dams, irrigation projects and over fishing. Today, one of the greatest threats to salmon and steelhead are high water temperatures when the Klamath is stressed by low summer flows. For returning fish, Blue Creek is the first cold-water refuge they encounter on their journey inland from the Pacific Ocean. Studies have shown that by holding in Blue Creek’s cold water, Chinook can lower their body temperature by up to eight degrees Fahrenheit, making this tributary critical to their survival. Without this cool-down period, most Chinook would likely die before reaching their spawning grounds in the upper Klamath.

Blue Creek also provides high-quality spawning habitat for Chinook, coho and steelhead. The riparian and upland areas within the Blue Creek watershed provide outstanding habitat for rare and imperiled animals like marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl, California condor and Humboldt marten.

An Unprecedented Partnership to Save the Klamath's Salmon

Western Rivers Conservancy and the Yurok Tribe established a long-term partnership to buy 47,097 acres along the lower Klamath and Blue Creek from Green Diamond Resource Company. The land includes the entire lower Blue Creek watershed, as well as extensive frontage along the lower Klamath. The upper reaches of Blue Creek are already protected by the Siskiyou Wilderness Area. The cold-water tributaries that are included in these lands are vital to the recovery of diverse species, including coho and Chinook salmon, steelhead, marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl. Once the project is complete, 73 square miles of the Klamath-Siskiyou will be managed as a salmon sanctuary, climate preserve and sustainable community forest.

As part of this effort, WRC helped the Tribe create the Yurok Tribal Community Forest along the Klamath. The Tribe now manages this for the sake of forest health, clean water, fish habitat and cultural rejuvenation. Ultimately, 14,790 acres will be protected as salmon sanctuary and 32,307 acres will be sustainably managed as community forest.

A Pioneer in Conservation Finance

To create a salmon sanctuary of this scale, WRC pioneered new approaches to conservation finance. Through the federal New Markets Tax Credits Program, designed to spur revitalization in low-income communities, WRC tapped a significant—and nontraditional—source of private funding. Combined with donor and foundation support, including generous funding from an anonymous foundation and a grant and low-interest loan from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, WRC was able to raise the needed funds to purchase these lands.

WRC paid off the loan from the Packard Foundation through the sale of carbon offsets and sustainable forestry practices that are rejuvenating old-growth habitat and improving the health of the Blue Creek watershed. To accomplish this, WRC created a supporting nonprofit, called Western Rivers Forestry (WRF), which is holding the land until it can be conveyed to the Yurok Tribe for permanent stewardship. From the outset, the Tribe will manage the lands on behalf of WRF and in line with WRC’s conservation vision.

Making the Vision a Reality

In February 2018, the vision became a reality when WRC conveyed the first major landholdings—nearly 10,000 acres—along Blue Creek itself to the Yurok Tribe. This transfer established the sanctuary and, at long last, reunited the tribe with Blue Creek. The Yurok Tribe will now steward the forests for the sake of fish and wildlife and to keep Blue Creek healthy and cold. Under a management plan approved by the State of California, the Yurok Tribe will manage the lands to heal decades of aggressive timber harvest, restore the richness of the forest and create tribal jobs in sustainable forestry and restoration.

In the end, this historic effort will help ensure the survival of one of the West’s great salmon streams, protect vital wildlife habitat in one of the most biologically rich areas on Earth, and reestablish a sacred homeland and economic base for the Yurok. Blue Creek can now be safeguarded by a community whose greatest cultural, spiritual and economic interests are healthy forests, healthy habitat and healthy returns of wild salmon and steelhead.

Saving Blue Creek, Lifeline of the Klamath River from Western Rivers Conservancy on Vimeo.

Funding for the Blue Creek Salmon Sanctuary and Yurok Tribal Community Forest was made possible through generous contributions from multiple sources, including the Aveda Corporation, L. P. Brown Foundation, California Coastal Conservancy, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Wildlife Conservation Board, Compton Foundation, Flora Family Foundation, Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation, Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, Betsy Jewett and Rick Gill, George F. Jewett Foundation, The Tim and Karen Hixon Foundation, The Kendeda Fund, Nancy Kittle, The Joseph and Vera Long Foundation, Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation/Acres for America and Walmart Stores, Inc., Natural Resources Conservation Service, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, State of California’s Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program, Mark Umeda, U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Inc., U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the Weeden Foundation, and with the generous support of many additional individuals, foundations and businesses.

This project has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement 83590301 to the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor does the EPA endorse trade names or recommend the use of commercial products mentioned in this document.

The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Inc. (the "Endowment") is a not-for-profit corporation that works collaboratively with partners in the public and private sectors to advance systemic, transformative and sustainable change for the health and vitality of the nation's working forests and forest-reliant communities.

The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation."

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