NISQUALLY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Wash. — For 10,000 years the Nisqually Indians have relied on chinook salmon for their very existence, but soon those roles are expected to reverse.
Based on current warming trends, climate scientists anticipate that in the next 100 years the Nisqually River will become shallower and much warmer. Annual snowpack will decline on average by half. The glacier that feeds the river, already shrunken considerably, will continue to recede.
Play the scene forward and picture a natural system run amok as retreating ice loosens rock that will clog the river, worsening flooding in winter, and a decline in snow and ice drastically diminishes the summer runoff that helps keep the river under a salmon-friendly 60 degrees.
To prepare for these and other potentially devastating changes, an unusual coalition of tribal government leaders, private partners and federal and local agencies are working to help the watershed and its inhabitants adapt. They are reserving land farther in from wetlands so that when the sea rises, the marsh will have room to move as well; they are promoting hundreds of rain gardens to absorb artificially warmed runoff from paved spaces and keep it away from the river; and they are installing logjams intended to cause the river to hollow out its own bottom and create cooler pools for fish.
Jeanette Dorner, the director of the salmon recovery program for the Nisqually Tribe Natural Resources Department, grew up wading along a creek that feeds the river, hunting freshwater mussels. Even though protecting the rivershed requires herculean feats of coordination among various authorities and has cost roughly $35 million over the last decade, she said, “it is urgent we do not just walk away.”
Many scientists and policy analysts believe the best course of action is to do what conservationists have long tried to do — return ecosystems to their strongest natural health and then stay out of the way. This approach is known as resiliency.
But as humans come to be adversely affected by the stepped-up pace of ecological change, they also increasingly look to help Mother Nature out in more active ways.
In North Carolina, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has teamed up with The Nature Conservancy to buy parcels just behind Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to allow the swamp to roll inland as the sea rises from glacial melt and to help black bears and red foxes migrate to inland refuges. In Montana the Wildlife Conservation Society is working with land trusts and others to secure corridors just outside Glacier National Park for wide-ranging cold-sensitive species like wolverines.
Such projects are on the rise, in part, because an executive order signed in 2009 by President Obama has led to a mandate that federal agencies integrate adaptation to climate change into all of their planning. But they often remain, like Nisqually, complex collaborations spurred more by imminent local ecological catastrophes.
Warm Water Fish
The Nisqually begins as a fast chute off Mount Rainier, rushes through shattered rock carved from the glacier above and then plunges through thick pine forests for 78 miles until it broadens into a rich estuary connecting with Puget Sound.
It remains a relatively healthy watershed because in 1989 — long before “global” and “warming” were inextricably linked — the Washington State Legislature, in the face of local protests and a court battle over Indian fishing rights, created the Nisqually River Council, the first watershed-wide protection council west of the Mississippi.
The council provided a framework for parties along the river to discuss their needs and goals. Financing came through many sources: via lawsuits brought to protect native endangered species like the chinook and the spotted owl, state and federal grants, the Park Service in Mount Rainier, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nisqually Tribe, which has prospered since the legalization of gaming on Indian lands.
For its first 20 years the council concentrated on undoing manmade damage, pursuing efforts like persuading the operator of the hydroelectric dam on the river to add salmon gates. Last year, as the council was updating its management plan, it began looking at the river “through the lens of climate change,” said David Troutt, its chairman. Suddenly restoration was not going to be enough.
Amy K. Snover, a director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, said that computer modeling showed that as early as 2020 there would be “significant” increases in rain in the Nisqually Basin in November and December. Sixty years beyond that there would 50 percent less snowpack at the end of winter, according to the average-climate projection. Warmer air and less snowmelt would mean a much warmer river and depleted soil moisture in summer, which would stress forest vegetation.
Ducks Unlimited, a conservation group founded by hunters, predicts that the entire low-lying wetlands at the river’s mouth, a prime fish nursery, will be inundated by the sea in the next 50 years, meaning that the species the council was working to save would be imperiled all over again.