The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians are celebrating the return of productive wetlands to their traditional homeland on the Oregon coast. The 125-acre parcel, called Fivemile Creek, is just upstream of Tahkenitch Lake, and holds special significance for the recovery of threatened coho salmon on the Oregon coast, as well as for the broader effort at restoring land and treaty rights for the Siletz Tribe.
“The Siletz Tribe is pleased to acquire this property of our ancestors and help protect coho salmon,” said Tribal Chairman Delores Pigsley in a statement when the deal was finalized last October. “It’s part of our cultural tradition to take care of the land and its inhabitants, and this is another opportunity to do both."
The Siletz Tribe once held a reservation that encompassed one-third of the Oregon Coast. Today their land base sits at 15,000 acres due to several waves of land disposession, including the termination of federal recognition in 1954. The Siletz eventually became the second tribe to successfully push back against federal termination policies in 1974, when their recognition was restored.
"We're always trying to increase the tribe's land base," said Mike Kennedy of Siletz Natural Resources. "We once had a 1.1 million–acre land base. Now we have a 15,000-acre land base."
According to Kennedy, coho returns in the Fivemile basin are routinely above average for the Oregon coast—with Tahkenitch Lake itself reputed as a wild coho stronghold.
The Siletz Tribe completed their acquisition of Fivemile Creek last October using a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. The land was purchased from EcoTrust Forest Management, which acquired the property in 2013 from the timber company Roseburg Resources.
EcoTrust Forest Management administers a fund in excess of $52 million to acquire forest land, and manages the fund to repatriate land to tribes, enhance the ecological value of forests, create rural jobs, and earn market-rate returns for investors. In 2015 EFM sold 3,200 acres of ecologically significant forestlands to the Coquille Tribe. Its parent organization, EcoTrust, has worked with tribes and First Nations since 1991.
Oregon Coastal Coho Restoration and Longstanding Issues for the Siletz Tribe
Coho salmon on the Oregon coast have been listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1998.
"Their populations have just plummetted up and down the coast," said Robert Kentta, tribal councilor and cultural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. "And this Fivemile property just happens to have one of the strongest runs in the region. All of our tribal families once relied on coho runs fairly extensively: chinook, steelhead, lamprey eel, some people went after sturgeon as a primary winter food resource."
Kentta says federal termination has created longstanding issues for the Siletz Tribe on issues like fishing and gathering rights—issues that still produce contention with the State of Oregon. Despite this, he said, the Siletz are working on a number of fronts to protect the abundance of their traditional foods, and are active participants in several partnerships with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and local Watershed Councils.
"We just consider it a duty of the tribe to look after those resources even if recognition of our rights at this time are limited,” Kentta said. “We believe our rights are much more extensive—they just haven't been recognized yet."
Kentta also believes restoring these rights can help the salmon.
"Everywhere that there has been tribal rights acknowledged and recognized, the tribe's right also adds to the conservation of that resource, and a lot of time to the enhancement of it,” he said. “The salmon runs in the northwest would be in a much more dire situation if there wasn't recognized tribal rights, where those fisheries are much more strongly monitored, with much more emphasis on habitat and restoration than there would've been otherwise."
Compared to the 16 other ESA-listed salmon and steelhead species in the Pacific Northwest, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) believes this particular species of coastal coho may have the best opportunity for a quick recovery. In a recovery plan issued in December of 2016, the fisheries service said the species can recover within 10 years if land managers can cooperate voluntarily across private, state, federal and tribal lands.
Mark Trenholm of the Wild Salmon Center agrees that the Oregon coast coho can recover quickly, but says collaboration should not be taken for granted, and significant challenges remain.
"These watershed councils need to be ten times the size that they are," said Trenholm. "It's completely underfunded... they're covering these really big land bases with really longstanding economic and social challenges. You sort of run into the priorities of an individual private land-owner, versus the broader goal of proper recovery."
In their December recovery plan, NMFS called out the lack of both regulatory and voluntary recovery actions as a major obstacle to coho recovery, in addition to the lack of high-quality habitat, the obstruction of fish passage due to dams, culverts and tidegates, and high water temperatures related to factors like climate change, construction on floodplains, and excessive water diversions.
The plan also emphasized the need to both protect what coho habitat remains and to restore that habitat to a more productive condition. Actions like these are already in the works for Fivemile Creek, with a full management plan to be worked out by the Siletz Tribe over the next year. Kennedy says the plan will likely include removal of two dikes, adding large wood to the wetlands, and restoring native plants. Actions like these provide shade and shelter for young coho while reducing stream temperatures.
Further upstream from FiveMile Creek the Siuslaw Forest Service has already begun work on a restoration project called FiveMile Bell that is adding large woody debris to the creek, re-establishing riparian plants, and re-building and re-grading stream channels in an attempt to restore the stream's original structure and ecosystem function.
"The plant communities have probably changed a lot since the old days," says Robert Kentta of Siletz Tribal Council. "but it would definitely be good wetland habitat for lots of traditional plants that are getting harder and harder to find for tribal use – and in a clean water source too. That's getting to be one of the things – if you can find some of the plant populations, you wouldn't dare use them, especially for food, because there's so much road run-off and development."
"It's a project that we support wholeheartedly," says Trenholm of Wild Salmon Center. "I think it's a pretty good illustration of the agencies and NGOs working with tribal entities to repatriate land to tribes and get some restoration done. That's a great scenario – I think we need an awful lot more of that."
Speaking on the broader challenge of repatriating land and restoring native foods, Kentta says "It's a big ongoing project to try to acquire original reservation lands, or important places within our ceded lands, and then pursuing our subsistence rights. It's not just the ability to feed yourself from the land. Science now is showing that when we eat away from the land we have diabetes, heart disease, those things have really welled up in our population because of lack of access to those traditional resources that did keep us healthy. And even the action of going out and preparing and cooking those foods there is emotional health, psychological health, spiritual health... it's actually procuring your food rather than going through the drive-through at McDonald’s."