Vigilance | Rails, Trails & Zombie Trains on the Salmonberry River

In 1993 a small group of volunteers under ODFW’s direction began a five-year project to collect winter steelhead spawning and summer temperature data. Twenty-three years later, we’re still at it; collecting data, and watching. We’ve documented a cyclical but stable population of winter steelhead, and rising temperatures. We’ve mapped the extent of steelhead spawning habitat, and we’ve documented widespread use by coho in a system once dismissed as marginal coho habitat. We saw spawning distribution change after the December 2007 flood, and we’ve continued to watch as the system begins to recover.

Largely intact habitat and remoteness contribute to the Salmonberry’s healthy and diverse fish populations. Both are threatened. Increased logging and road construction on state and private timberland continue to threaten habitat. Unexpectedly, the 2007 flood started a chain of events that may forever change the Salmonberry’s character. The flood destroyed the Port of Tillamook Bay railroad that runs beside the river for most of its length.

Rather than repair it, the Port decided to stop rail operations entirely. Although the rail bed continues to erode into the river, the threat of a disastrous diesel spill is gone, and herbicide spraying along the track has ceased. But, as in any good horror movie, the dead monster has come back to life, this time with a sidekick.

The Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad leased the remaining track from POTB and decided to rebuild in the lower five miles of the Salmonberry. Fortunately, one Native Fish Society member’s vigilance resulted in a cease and desist order from the Corp of Engineers and a court case that is still unresolved.

As for the monster’s sidekick, there is a multi-agency effort to create a “rail with trail” from the Willamette Valley, through the Coast Range, down the Salmonberry, and all the way to Tillamook. The original plan called for a wide, hard-surface trail suitable for road bikes, pedestrians, and equestrians all the way through.

Wild fish advocates succeeded in getting the plan changed so that the Salmonberry portion will be a narrow dirt “adventure trail”. But the cat is out of the bag. On any nice weekend, there are hordes of hikers scrambling along a trail that hasn’t been built yet. It’s hard to predict the full impact of increased use on the Salmonberry’s wild fish. Steelhead are easily flushed off their redds; crowds of hikers in April and May will have an effect similar to crowds of anglers in March. We routinely find people fishing in summer who don’t know the river is closed to trout angling year-round and it’s safe to assume that poaching will increase as more people wander into the area. The need for a long-term stewardship presence will not end. There are too many threats to this unique resource.

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