Since listing of Chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has instituted a seasonal river closure each year for a 2.5 mile section of the Nooksack River from the Highway 542 Bridge (at Douglas Fir Campground) to the National Forest Boundary (affecting the intermediate run from Douglas Fir Campground to Mt. Baker Highway mile 27 ). These closures have taken place since the 2000 paddling season and last from August to March.
AW, represented by local members of the paddling community, expressed concerns with the length of this closure. Adult salmon spawn in the river from mid-August to mid-September and while there is some evidence that paddlers can affect the behavior of these fish, the closure lasts well beyond the date when the last adult fish dies (around the 1st of October). The primary concern during this later, and longer, phase of the closure is impacts paddlers may have on nesting sites if they were to leave their boat or scrape along the bottom. The reasons for this closure are particuarly perplexing given the fact that the river remains open to fishermen (regulated by a different agency). Local paddlers and volunteers believe it is possible to allow paddling from October to March, when winter rains bring the river up to ideal flows for whitewater paddlers and keep the nests well covered. Voluntary requirements to remain in your boat when passing through this 2.5 mile reach (except in an emergency), avoid the river during low flows, and avoid contact with the river bed in areas with substrate smaller than the size of a grapefruit could allow paddling opportunties while protecting salmon.
In a recent meeting with the Forest Service, staff agreed that the closure did not need to extend through the winter incubation period. While this issue will receive formal review in the coming months in consultation with NOAA Fisheries, the Forest Service has announced that they will reopen the river to recreational boating on October 15th. In establishing a future policy AW has requested that a schedule for closure dates be clarified as every year the closure is presented as an emergency closure with limited warning. Appropriate signage should be installed at key river access points to educate boaters on the closure throughout the year. As part of this effort the Forest Service could use the opportunity to inform boaters of the reasons for the closure and take advantage of an educational opportunity.
In summary, we appreciate the efforts of the Forest Service to support the restoration and protection of Chinook salmon in the North Fork of the Nooksack River; and are committed to development of a plan that provides full protection for a species representing a critical element of a fully functional river ecosystem and cultural icon for the region.