Saving Salmon and Forests

Reprinted from Dan Botkin’s Newsletter, Vol. 4.06. MAR 30 2017 Copyright © 2017 Daniel B. Botkin, How to (Partially) Solve an Environmental Problem
“In the early 1990s, the State of Oregon legislation passed a bill providing $1 million to fund a scientific study of the relative effects of forest practices on salmon in the state. The project had been lobbied for by the Oregon State Forester, James Brown, who was impressed with the goals of my new nonprofit, The Center for the Study of the Environment, and wanted a completely honest and reliable analysis of the relative effects of the various causes of the supposed decline of salmon in the many rivers in Oregon.  When the bill was passed, Jim asked if I would direct the study, because he wanted a completely independent and honest scientific analysis, and would accept a finding that forest practices were the primary cause of salmon decline, even if it went against the hopes and plans of the state forestry department.  The project took five years to complete. 

The primary popular culprits in salmon decline were overfishing, sea lions eating too many salmon, artificial dams, and forestry. I created my usual small team of scientists to direct the research including allocation of funds. The members were Dr. Kenneth Cummins, whose field is stream and river ecosystems and freshwater fish populations, and was Professor of Biology and Director of the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology at University of Pittsburgh; Dr. Thomas Dunne, geomorphologist,  whose field is effects of land-use practices on the shape and form of streams, and was a Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at University of Washington, Seattle; Dr. Henry Regier, whose field was the Great Lakes as ecosystems, was experienced in the processes of international agreements for conservation and management, and was Professor at the Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Toronto, Canada; Dr. Matthew Sobel, an applied mathematician who worked on stochastic processes and risk analysis, and was Dean of Harriman School of Management and Policy at State University of New York, Stony Brook; Dr. Lee M. Talbot, whose field is biological conservation and who is a leader in international conservation, former director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and was then Senior Ecologist for the Environment Division, Africa Region, of The World Bank in Washington, D.C.
I set up an office in Portland, Oregon, and hired one of my graduate students as the research assistant.  Believing that the Oregon Department of Forestry would have basic information about the state’s forests, such as maps and information about the date and methods of forest logging,  and that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife would have similarly basic information about salmon and the rivers, such as counts over time of the number of salmon of each species and water flow in the rivers, we would have an excellent basis from which to start this research.
In the early 1990s, two major environmental issues getting a lot of attention across the nation were the fates of the grand forests of the Pacific Northwest and of salmon, which inhabited the rivers in those forests.  At that time, the standard villains blamed for the salmon decline were forestry practices (as Oregon was also a major source of some of the best timber in the U.S.A.), sea lions for feeding on too many salmon, overfishing by people,  and dams which blocked the passage of the salmon on their way both upstream as adults to spawn and downstream as youngsters to go to the ocean (as Salmon spend part of the lives in both freshwater streams and the ocean, usually doing a lot of growing and fattening up in the ocean.)  

The larger group of environmentalists tended to blame forestry as the primary cause. In part, this was because the standard forest practices were to clear-cut large areas, mainly of Douglas fir, leaving them barren; open to erosion, and probably not the best place for regeneration, but probably equally important these methods left huge ugly scars on the landscape.  As I also noted, the Oregon agencies involved asked me to limit our project to the 23 rivers in Oregon that flowed to the ocean and were south of the Columbia River. 

The State Departments of Fish and Wildlife and of Forestry failed to get us the basic information. They had maintained counts of salmon on just two of the 23 rivers, the Rogue and the Umpqua, because there are the only two that have dams where it was easy to count the fish as they passed.  Next, it turned out that the Oregon Department of Forestry did not have a map of the state’s forests, and did not monitor changes in these in any way.

Getting Information and Understanding

We made our own map of the state’s forest using Landsat satellite imagery that showed at least where there were intact old-growth forests and where there were areas completed logged and cleared. Additionally, we did manage to recover a 1913 map of the state’s forest, the only one apparently that the state agencies had ever made.

The People, Especially the Fishermen, Come to the Rescue

As a believer in democracy, it was my conviction that the public should also be involved in this salmon project, and I told the state government agencies I had planned a series of public meetings at a variety of locations, so that all the citizens sufficiently concerned about the issue would have a short trip to at least one of these events. The heads of the state agencies strongly discouraged me from doing this, saying it would just be filled with crazies who would shout for a very long time to no purpose. I replied that I was setting up strong ground rules: that anyone who wanted to speak had to submit a written statement and could speak for no longer than 5 minutes. Clearly, the state agencies didn’t want the public’s involvement, for a variety of reasons, some of which slowly came out.  Here’s one example:

At one meeting, an intelligent man got up and said that the lower portion of most the salmon streams flowed through agricultural land, and it was possible that agricultural practices, especially the heavy use of pesticides, could be one of the series causes of damage to salmon populations. He was the only person in the entire 5 years of the project who brought up that point, but it was clear to us scientists in charge an important consideration. I arranged, as a result of this citizen’s statement, to have the head of the Oregon Department of Agriculture come and talk in private with my committee. 

He was a pleasant and charming man. I said to him after an initial chat, “Since there is so much active farmland where the salmon streams flow near the ocean, why hasn’t this been one of the topics that the state and the people interested in salmon had focused on?”  He smiled and replied, “I guess we’re just good at public relations.”  End of discussion.

All these public meetings went very well.  My committee members sat with me in most of them and all were peaceful. But the most amazing public meeting was held in Gold Beach, the town at the mouth of the Rogue River, one of the major salmon streams and the central meeting place for the commercial salmon fishermen and fishing guides. I had set up the public meeting to be held during the day, thinking that would be the easiest for most people.  But the head of the commercial salmon fishing organization called my administrative assistant, Susan Day- an extremely competent person who keep everything running smoothly- warned me when she saw I was making some kind of mistake.  The caller complained that the commercial fisherman couldn’t make a daytime meeting and demanded it be held in the evening.  “What should we do?” Ms. Day asked me, somewhat taken aback by the demand.  “What the heck; we’ll hold two public meetings in Gold Beach, one in the day and one at night,” I replied.

The first of the two Gold Beach meetings was the daytime one, and in spite of their prior claim, all the interested commercial fishermen turned up at that meeting. (By demanding an evening meeting, they just wanted to assert their importance and wanted me to recognize that.  That’s what I had thought and it seemed to be true.) 

At the very opening of the meeting, one of the commercial fishermen leaders said, “Professor Botkin, are you convinced that Oregon’s salmon are in trouble?” I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Actually, I’m mainly a forest ecologist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was asked to lead this study, but I really don’t know that much about salmon and have no opinion regarding their status.” 

Susan, always watching the crowd carefully, told me afterward that before the meeting started all the commercial fishermen were sitting upright, with their arms folded, and looking pretty angry.  But then as soon as I made my honest admission, Susan said all the fishermen relaxed, sat back comfortably, and began to discuss their situation and concerns in an open and honest way.

Jim Welter, Old-time Fisherman, Comes Up with One Important Answer.

In the middle of the meeting a short, thin man stood up to speak. “My name is Jim Welter,” he said, “I’m 86 and blind in one eye, but been a salmon fisherman all my life.  I don’t know anything about science, but it just seems to makes sense that if these fish are born and bred in fresh water, that the amount of water flowing in their natal stream ought to have a big effect on how many young fish survive and get to the ocean, where they then grow and return to spawn.” In essence, high stream flow, good for young salmon; low stream flow, bad for them.  The effects on the population would show up when they matured and returned to the natal stream.

Then Jim, with the help of a friend, brought a huge previously rolled up paper graph to the front of the room and got it hung up so everybody could see it.  It was a graph that showed annual stream water flow and salmon counts on the Rogue River.

“I went to the Oregon Department of Water and got the information about annual water flow on the Rogue,” Jim said, “and then I went to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and got their counts of salmon.”

Realizing how difficult it is to get data from government agencies, and had been for me at the start of this project in getting counts of salmon from the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (as I recounted previously), it was just plain amazing that this 86-year-old fisherman had the determination, focus, and energy to succeed in obtaining these data. Equally amazing was his insight into the possible cause and effect of water flow and amount on salmon.

My committee and I, along with everybody in the audience, looked a long time at Jim’s graph, and darned if it wasn’t clear that when there was a high water flow year four years later there were a lot of adult salmon returning up the Rogue, and the contrary: low water years were followed four years later by low salmon returns.


This was, and remains today, one of the most amazing experiences in my professional career.  The elderly fisherman who said he knew nothing about science had done better scientific thinking and created one of the most impressive scientific graphs we had seen in the entire project.  Not a single salmon scientist had created such a graph nor ever suggested Jim’s correlation.

This graph shows salmon returns and Rogue River water flow 4 years before.  We were so impressed with Jim’s graph that we worked with him afterward, and brought in Ben Stout, a forest statistician, whom we paid to do a statistical analysis of the data Jim had retrieved.  It turned out that water flow alone accounted for more than 80% of the variation in salmon.  Whatever else was affecting salmon, plain old stream flow as affected by climate dynamics was playing a very strong role in salmon abundance.

(As a footnote, I have to add that Jim and I become lifelong friends and continued to communicate as friends for years afterward.  In spite of his humble introduction of himself, Jim Welter was smart, articulate, imaginative, full of stories and just a lot of fun.)

With Ben Stout’s formal statistical analysis, we were able to create a mathematical equation to predict salmon returns based only on water flow.  Here’s how those results looked:

rogue river

Digging into details, searching lots of places, people, and finding out what non-governmental organizations had learned.

One citizen’s suggestion about agricultural effects on salmon and Jim Welter’s analysis of water flow and salmon are just two examples of how we slowly — over five years — extricated all sorts of information.  As another example, the Wilderness Society had hired a fisheries scientist to go around the part of the state where these 23 salmon streams were and create a numbered scale combining the abundance of salmon of and of the quality of the stream for salmon.  We overlapped his map on our satellite-based map and were able to make some useful conclusions from that. 

We put all the information we gathered over 5 years together in a large report, presented it to the Oregon legislature in a public meeting, and went away pleased with the work we had done.  But in the end, relatively little was made of our hard work.  The detailed final report was published and exists on a computer disk for anyone who is interested.  You can obtain one by writing me and paying the cost of producing and mailing a copy.   

Olympic Natural Resources Center Research Project
After I had completed the Oregon project, I was contacted by John Calhoun, the head of the Olympic Natural Resources Center on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, who said he needed help.  Newly passed Federal legislation was supposed to protect salmon in the Pacific Northwest by preventing any logging too close to salmon-bearing streams.  The legislation specified that no logging could be done within a distance equal to twice the height of the tallest tree that could grow along a stream.  The problem with this rule was, given the density of streams on the Olympic Peninsula, by the time one had gone that distance away from one stream, one was likely to be within that distance of another.  In short, the rule was essentially stopping all logging on the Peninsula.  

John said that he had been approached by the Indian Tribes, the foresters and the fishermen, who said that this was heavily interfering with their way of life, their culture, and their means of making a living.  They said they would accept these roles if it could be shown that they were having a beneficial effect.  John had obtained funding for such research, but said that, not being a scientist, he didn’t even know how to write a request for proposals so that people could respond.  He asked if I could provide that information, to which I said I could.  

I formed a group of three: myself, Matt Sobel, and Ken Cummins (listed above), and the three of us went to the Center, traveled into the forests, and wrote a draft request for a proposal. The draft had quite a list of things the proposer would agree to do, one of which was to count the salmon in streams to be studied over the time of the research. 
This seemed to be an obvious and simple part of the request, but it immediately greatly upset the salmon scientists of the state, who contacted their governor and federal senators, and got this request stopped.  They claimed that it was not important to count the salmon, and for some reasons, they believed it was a bad thing to do.  This was the first time in my professional career as a scientist that I had ever heard scientists claim that they should not seek the basic quantitative information about what they were studying.  As a result, John subsequently organized a meeting of about 30 salmon scientists and related scientists, and we discussed this matter.  It was never resolved. “
– Dan Botkin 

Citations: Publications resulting from the Oregon project.
Botkin, D.B., R.A. Nisbet, and M. J. Sobel, 1994, Status and Future of Salmon of Western Oregon and Northern California, Analysis of Fish Models,Center for the Study of the Environment, Santa Barbara, CA, 35 pp.

Sobel, M.J., and D. B. Botkin, 1994, Status and Future of Salmon of Western Oregon and Northern California, Forecasting Spring Chinook Runs,Center for the Study of the Environment, Santa Barbara, CA, 42 pp.

Cummins, K., T. Dunne, D. Botkin, H. Regier, M.J. Sobel, and L. M. Talbot, 1994, Status and Future of Salmon of Western Oregon and Northern California,  Management of the Riparian Zone for Conservation and Production of Salmon, Center for the Study of the Environment, Santa Barbara, CA,  55pp.

Botkin, D.B., K. Cummins, T. Dunne, H. Regier,  M. J. Sobel, and L. M. Talbot, 1995, Status and Future of Anadromous Fish of Western Oregon and Northern California:  Findings and Options, Center for the Study of the Environment, Santa Barbara, CA

Botkin, D.B., K. Cummins, T. Dunne, H. Regier,  M. J. Sobel, and L. M. Talbot, 1995, Status and Future of Anadromous Fish of Western Oregon and Northern California: Overview of Findings and Options, Center for the Study of the Environment, Santa Barbara, CA        

Botkin, Daniel B.,  Kenneth Cummins, Thomas Dunne, Henry Regier, Matthew Sobel, Lee Talbot and Lloyd Simpson, 1995,  STATUS AND FUTURE OF SALMON OF WESTERN OREGON  AND NORTHERN CALIFORNIA: FINDINGS AND OPTIONS.  INTEGRATIVE FINAL REPORT,  May 1995. Copyright (C) 1995 The Center for the Study of the Environment A Non-Profit Corporation Santa Barbara, California

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