By Bob Carey, Strategic Partnerships Director, The Nature Conservancy in Washington
Most of us who have spent time in the Pacific Northwest have heard our elders and old-timers spin tails of being able to walk across rivers on the back of salmon. Very few of us actually get to experience salmon in the kind of concentrations that spurred such tails. Yet that’s exactly what I saw one day on Illabot Creek!
I was on a research expedition on the Skagit River. My colleagues and I pulled our canoe up on a gravel bar at the mouth of Illabot Creek. The lower reach of Illabot, where it empties itself into the Skagit River, flowed black. Or so we thought.
What first appeared to be a river darkened by a bed of leaf litter, turned out to be a river chock-full of salmon! From bank to bank for a 100 yards upstream Illabot Creek was packed with thousands and thousands of pink salmon — awaiting their upstream journey to spawn and hatch the next generation that would follow the same incredible journey to the north pacific and back, feeding killer whales, seals and humans along the way.
The incredible concentrations of fish and wildlife in Illabot Creek have made it a focal point for conservation efforts by The Nature Conservancy and other private, public and tribal partners over the years. It supports some of the largest salmon and trout populations in the Skagit River system – itself one of the biggest producers of salmon in the coterminous United States.
Through the years, in cooperation with our partners at Seattle City Light, WA Department of Fish and Wildlife, Skagit Land Trust, US Forest Service, Skagit River System Cooperative and others, much of the land in the Illabot Creek watershed has been placed in long-term conservation ownership. Protecting the land does not guarantee the water will be protected, and over the years more than one proposal has surfaced to build a hydroelectric dam on the river – potentially blocking fish passage, inundating rich habitat, and altering stream flows the sustain downstream habitat.
So a few years back, in collaboration with a large suite of local and state partners, we developed a proposal to build on our successful land conservation efforts and provide long-lasting protection of the waterway itself.
As of today, and thanks to the leadership of this region’s Congressional delegation, Illabot creek will continue to run free.
It will continue to host the salmon runs and wintering eagle populations that have helped bring the Skagit its fame. Congress has designated Illabot Creek as a national Wild and Scenic River. The incredible natural phenomenon I saw there years ago will be present for future generations.
Illabot Creek will continue to run free.