Meet the man in the silver salmon suit

EVERETT — If John Lennon had been dreaming of saving salmon habitat when he wrote the song “Imagine,” then Tom Murdoch of the Adopt A Stream Foundation could have written the lyrics for him.

Murdoch, director of the nonprofit environmental group based in Everett’s McCollum Park, has been dreaming of reducing polluted runoff and restoring fish runs for more than 30 years.

“Imagine if every downspout was connected to a rain barrel that discharged to a rain garden and into the ground. Imagine if every lawn in the watershed in your city was converted to a native plant landscape,” Murdoch says.

Murdoch has dedicated his life to acting on those dreams.

He estimates he’s worked on about 400 stream restoration projects, mostly in Snohomish and north King counties. Along with ecologists and other experts, he’s taught groups all over the Northwest how to care for creeks and rivers. He’s co-written manuals on stream stewardship and restoration that are used in curriculums around the United States and Canada.

Murdoch — sometimes dressed in a large salmon suit — has taught thousands of schoolkids and adults about the relationship between streams, fish and people.

He’s raised millions of dollars in grants and donations over the years for his small nonprofit.

Murdoch’s commitment to fish is not unlike the determination of salmon to get upstream to spawn.

“Tom’s very driven, very dedicated, very passionate about what he does,” said Mike Chamblin, a retired habitat biologist for the state and a longtime member of Adopt A Stream’s board of directors. “He’s very goal-oriented, very steadfast and eternally optimistic.”

When it comes to restoring salmon runs, which in Western Washington are a fraction of what they were 50 years ago, swimming upstream applies to the enormity and difficulty of the task as well.

Some of the public policy measures suggested by Murdoch and other fish advocates are costly and controversial.

Murdoch believes governments are behind the curve in requiring new development to be friendly to streams and fish.

“It costs more to do it, but it’s pretty evident that we have sacrificed our salmon runs in exchange for poorly planned development. I think a good thing to think about doing is to have the stormwater management plans drive the land-use plans.”

Some believe that’s already happening too often.

Lynnwood residential developer Mike Echelbarger has known Murdoch since 1980, when Murdoch wrote the first drainage regulations for Snohomish County while working in its planning department.

Echelbarger said a requirement to install a retention pond for a small housing development he’s building in Edmonds will add about $150,000 to the total cost, which will be spread among six properties.

“I think we have to build an Olympic-size swimming pool to retain the water off of six lots,” he said.

“Tom is passionate about salmon. I’m concerned about salmon, but I’m more concerned about humans than I am fish,” Echelbarger said. “I think there’s a way for us to cohabitate but I don’t think the fish deserve priority.

“I understand exactly where Tom’s coming from, and he understands where I’m coming from. We’re sort of on opposite ends of the pole. He’s a good guy, but… .”

Murdoch says the measures he promotes are worthwhile and can save money in other ways, such as requiring fewer drain pipes to be installed to carry stormwater.

“What value do you place on your local natural resources?” he said. “If you’re thinking long term, those local natural resources are much more valuable than most people think. There’re a lot of creative ways of doing things.”

Actions that Murdoch advocates at the individual level don’t show up on many people’s radar — such as tightening the oil pan on the car, installing “green” roofs and tearing out the lawn and planting with native shrubs. Some are expensive, some don’t fit lifestyles and some simply require time that many people feel they don’t have.

The key is education, Murdoch said. Plus, there are benefits of which people may not be aware.

“My front yard is primarily kinnikinnick,” he said, referring to the native ground cover. “It requires absolutely no care. There’s extra rewards for being a good steward. You get more free time.”

Murdoch, who lives in north Seattle with his wife of 41 years, two dogs and two cats, won’t tell his age.

“The guys where I play pickup ball at the ‘Y’ will be on me,” he said, smiling.

He was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in a military family, living all over the country and in Japan.

During the Vietnam War, while in the military, Murdoch was sent to King Salmon Air Force Base in southwest Alaska.

No coincidence; it was there he found his calling.

One day during a break he took a small aluminum boat and a fishing pole out onto the Naknek River. “I knew nothing about fishing,” he said.

In just seconds, a 30-pound salmon hit on his lure, he said. After a 10-minute battle to boat the fish, he set his pole down — the line still in the water — and tried to grab the fish to throw it back.

“I saw my pole go from the bow of the boat to the stern. I grabbed the pole to keep it from going overboard, and there was another fish on.”

After another fight, Murdoch shook the second salmon loose and wound up keeping the first.

“Then I just sat there and thought, that was pretty amazing,” he said.

After Alaska, Murdoch served at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma. When he got out, he enrolled in college and starting taking fisheries and oceanography classes.

He studied marine science at the University of Washington, receiving a master’s degree in natural resources in 1977. The next year, Murdoch went to work for Snohomish County as a water resource specialist.

In the early 1980s, as development in the Puget Sound region accelerated, the county got federal money to help schools and other local groups to do their own stream restoration projects. Teachers and students at Jackson Elementary School in Everett drew attention for restoring a salmon run to Pigeon Creek, Murdoch said.

Media coverage attracted interest from outside the area. That led Murdoch to believe he could expand the work beyond the county.

He enlisted the help of others and started the Adopt A Stream Foundation in 1985. Terry Williams of the Tulalip Tribes was among the founding board members.

In the early years the group focused on education — starting with large seminars, then writing handbooks on stream stewardship, including the “Streamkeeper’s Field Guide.

Murdoch remained full time at the county, doing both jobs. In 1990, the foundation received a state grant to hire paid staff, and Murdoch reduced his hours at the county. He still works part-time as a naturalist for the county parks department in addition to his work at Adopt A Stream.

“He’s a tireless worker,” Chamblin said. “I don’t know how he does it and I don’t know how he’s been married all these years.”

As word spread about the foundation, the staff traveled on demand around the Northwest, including British Columbia, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and northern California, conducting workshops on stream stewardship.

In the early 1990s, the county granted Adopt A Stream free use of a tract of land at the south end of Everett’s McCollum Park, next to North Creek, in exchange for providing environmental education programs.

Eventually, with the county’s blessing, the group raised enough money to put up a building. About $1 million is invested in the Northwest Stream Center building at the park, with an auditorium, meeting spaces, a classroom, offices and a library, Murdoch said. The foundation hosts stream-keeper classes, school groups and brings in experts for talks on various types of Northwest critters, not just fish.

In the late 1990s, Adopt A Stream got a grant to start its own stream restoration work.

The group has completed 18 separate projects on North Creek alone and hundreds of others. Work comes in many forms, such as clearing out nonnative brush; putting in native plants; removing concrete pipes; restoring stream bottoms; building fish ladders and planting logs in streams to provide pools for fish.

In some cases, where salmon face impassable obstacles, Adopt A Stream staff and volunteers net the fish, put them in barrels full of water and truck them upstream.

Murdoch still gets out and does the physical work alongside younger staff members and student volunteers.

He isn’t sure how many fish runs the projects have restored, but in many of the cases more fish are returning than before.

“We’ve been able to ease the migration process,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch has high praise for his staff, which currently numbers eight, including several stream ecologists.

Despite Murdoch’s zeal for his work, he works well with others, said Daryl Williams, current chairman of the Adopt A Stream board and environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes.

“All the projects we’ve done we couldn’t have done without his ability to work with other people,” Williams said.

Murdoch has an easygoing air about him. Those who know him know he likes to talk.

“You kind of get into this stuff, it becomes a part of you,” Murdoch said.

These days he talks about the next big step for Adopt A Stream — plans for a raised boardwalk and interpretive signs along North Creek at the stream center. The group has raised $420,000 for the project and needs $80,000 more.

The walkway will be connected to a $1.7 million trout stream exhibit the organization has already built. The concrete structure recreates a stream with living trout, with large acrylic windows for public viewing into the water. The plan was first envisioned more than 20 years ago, Williams said.

Other than $150,000 in cash from the Tulalip Tribes, Murdoch was able to attract donations for most of the cost, Williams said.

“I was shocked at how many organizations he was able to get to donate,” he said.

Murdoch’s latest dream: attracting 45,000 visitors per year to the center, located just a half-mile from I-5. This year, about 4,800 people attended talks, classes and other Adopt A Stream events — a record, Murdoch said.

“Together with all these other things that are going on, we’ll start making a pretty significant difference,” he said.

While the big salmon in Alaska got him started, it’s getting the message across that keeps him going.

Recently, after a session with kids, he asked the group, “‘What is the area of vegetation around the stream that affects the ecology of the stream?’ and they all yelled back, ‘A riparian zone.’

“I said, ‘You guys are great, because 99 percent of the people on the planet don’t know the answer to that question. Welcome to the 1 percent.’

“You could see they were all beaming. That’s really cool.”

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