Saving Deer Creek

It took work and lots of money to restore a steelhead


Herald Writer

OSO — Steelhead anglers talk about Deer Creek with undisguised reverence one minute, nostalgic melancholy the next.

It’s a stream where legends were made and promises broken.

The big tributary to the north fork of the Stillaguamish River was once world renowned for its summer steelhead, average in size, but line-busting fighters.

Then came the logging trucks and the heavy machinery to build logging roads. The creek began to fill with silt.

A decade ago, the number of Deer Creek steelhead dwindled to a handful. The promise of a bountiful fish run was in jeopardy.

Many questioned if the steelhead would survive, but today it appears the feisty fish are on the way back.

A lot of work, millions of dollars and some old-fashioned luck may have saved the Deer Creek steelhead. That shows that we can reverse the harm we do to the environment. The lessons learned can be applied to other waterways on the brink.

Western author Zane Grey immortalized the fish run and Deer Creek after his 1918 trip to the then-remote angling stream, whose watershed is in parts of Snohomish and Skagit counties.

He wrote of waters clear as crystal, broken by huge boulders and deep pools, which provided refuge for the juvenile steelhead during winter storms.

It was one of the most ideal rearing grounds for steelhead on the West Coast, experts say.

"A real bottleneck for steelhead in Western Washington is their ability to survive the high flows we have in our winter period," said Curt Kraemer, state Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist.

That’s why a glimpse of the creek today is disappointing.

If there are huge boulders, only the tops show now. Deep pools described by Grey are filled with sand and gravel.

What makes the stream remarkable today is its frequent muddy color after virtually every rain shower.

It’s been 63 years since any sports fisherman has legally dropped a fly into one of the deep, inviting pools that used to dot the course of Deer Creek, a place where locked gates now keep most folks away.

The fishing ban was recognition early that this steelhead run is special and its rearing environment was fragile.

Glaciers that retreated 120 centuries ago left behind thick deposits of clay, sand and gravel, and unstable soil on the steep hillsides. The hillsides, to a great degree, are held in place by the root systems of conifer forests.

The unstable deposits were nature’s time bomb, one that exploded in the 1980s after humans ignited the fuse by disturbing the landscape.

A report done by the U.S. Forest Service in 1996 blames extensive timber harvesting starting in the 1950s for the decline of habitat and resulting loss of the fishery in Deer Creek.

Many small landslides occurred in the 1970s, but the final straw was the years-long collapse of a mountain-size chunk of hillside starting in the winter of 1983-84. The slide flowed into DeForest Creek, a small tributary to Deer Creek.

"We were getting the equivalent of about 100 10-yard dump truck loads (of sand and gravel) a day dumping into the creek," biologist Kraemer said. Over several years, much of the material washed down Deer Creek into the Stillaguamish and to salt water and Port Susan.

Experts estimated that 1.8 million cubic yards of material from the DeForest slide had muddied Deer Creek by 1990. That’s the equivalent of piling dirt on a regulation football field to a depth of more than 1,000 feet, as tall as the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln standing on end.

"We seriously had discussions in the middle 1980s whether these fish would exist in the year 2000," Kraemer said. "They’re still here, and there’s more here now than there were 15 years ago. We’re very encouraged."

For sports fisherman Bob Arnold of Stanwood, the thought of hooking into a wild Deer Creek steelhead in the lower Stillaguamish River sends ripples up his spine.

"They’re just skyrockets," he said of the fish. "They’re superb."

It’s a catch-and-release fishery, but the thrill of the catch is indescribable, he said

There were years in the late 1980s and early 1990s when virtually no Deer Creek summer steelhead were caught by sportsmen in the Stillaguamish. The number has increased the last few seasons, and Arnold is guardedly optimistic now that the run is on the way back.

A helicopter flight over the creek late in the summer produced an estimate of 1,000 adult steelhead in Deer Creek, biologist Kraemer said. In the late 1980s, fewer than 100 fish a year came back to the creek. A survey in 1970, before the DeForest slide, estimated between 1,500 and 2,000.

Arnold’s group, the Federation of Fly Fishers, was one of several sports organizations that participated in a concerted effort to fix what went wrong in Deer Creek.

The irony is the huge DeForest landslide was the single disaster that galvanized forces to save the creek. It forced a coordinated recovery approach and the formation of what was called the Deer Creek Group.

The panel consisted of representatives of involved government agencies, Indian tribes, sports groups and private property owners.

About half the land within the basin is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Private landowners account for 30 percent of the area, and the state owns about 20 percent.

"There were a lot of terrible, bloody arguments," Arnold said. The issues, he said, centered on whether there would continue to be logging in the basin, and if so, how to do it.

A lot was done to stop the erosion and improve conditions for fish in the creek.

The state tried an intense grading program early, but that didn’t work.

The Forest Service spent $2 million improving roads and culverts, placing wood and barrier structures in the stream itself, catching flows of washed out materials with "sediment fences" and planting deep-rooted willows to stabilize banks, according to the 1996 Forest Service report.

The state, private landowners and Indian tribes spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more for similar activities and studies.

Some policy changes were probably more important.

Forest Service senior biologist James Doyle recalls a proposed timber sale on federal land near Higgins Creek within the Deer Creek watershed in 1984.

"We said we’re in deep trouble if we harvest that," Doyle said. He and others persuaded his superiors to place a moratorium on all federal timber sales within the watershed.

The state and private property owners didn’t stop the logging, but Doyle said the discussions of the Deer Creek Group encouraged better cutting and road-building practices to decrease erosion.

The state also imposed stricter steelhead fishing rules in the north fork of the Stillaguamish to increase the number of adults returning to spawn in Deer Creek.

One more natural ingredient went into the recovery recipe. The 1990 flood helped scour some of the filled-in pools, providing deeper waters for future generations of tiny fish to hide, Kraemer said.

That was just the right sort of luck.

Far downstream near Arlington, the Stillaguamish Indian Tribe has watched the effects of civilization on the river system with grave interest.

The DeForest slide buried fish eggs throughout the lower Stillaguamish, affecting the salmon as well as the steelhead.

"DeForest Creek was just another slap in the face of the tribe," said Pat Stevenson, environmental manger for the tribe. "It was overwhelming the fishery… all the way to Port Susan."

The recovery effort at Deer Creek shows that nature will heal itself given time and opportunity, he said.

But the Deer Creek watchers are still holding their breath.

The tribe is attempting to secure money for a study to mark areas with unstable soils to bolster arguments against future logging in many parts of the Stillaguamish basin.

Some fear another catastrophic mudslide somewhere could wipe out all the good that was done.

Others are pleased with progress, but aren’t convinced yet.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the conservation organization Washington Trout Inc., said: "We need to look at it in the long run. How will it do over the next 30 years? That will really tell us if we’re out of the woods."

We may need to adopt a new attitude, added Snohomish County Councilman Dave Somers, former fish habitat biologist for the Tulalip Tribes.

"Unless we admit the problems we’ve caused and understand how we’ve done that, we’re not going to change anything," Somers said.

Why should we care about this creek?

"If we want our children to have the same experiences Zane Grey wrote so eloquently about, we’re going to need to protect or restore these watersheds," Beardslee said. "(Deer Creek) should be an example of the fact that we may be able to save some of these."

You can call Herald Writer Jim Haley at 425-339-3447

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