The Long Arc of a Short River
Columbia Land Trust’s recent 285-acre conservation success builds on a broader effort to support a unique wetland ecosystem along Washington’s Baker Bay.
Washington’s Chinook River empties into Baker Bay at the mouth of the Columbia River a mere six miles from its headwaters. What the river lacks in size it makes up for in the diversity of wildlife its wetland habitat supports. It’s a place where the history of salmon, the region, and its people are deeply intertwined.
The Lower Columbia region is the ancestral land of the Tribes of Chinookan peoples, including the Cathlamet, Clatsop, Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum, and Willapa. The Chinookan people have always resided in the lower Columbia River region and reside there today. European settlers chose the name Chinook for the river, its most prominent salmon species, and a nearby town, as a distortion of ‘sinuk’ or ‘Chenoke’, after the tribe they first contacted along the mouth of the Columbia. Historical accounts depicted rivers with salmon stacked like cordwood from bank to bank. When Pacific County was established in 1851, the town of Chinook, then known as Chinookville, had grown into a bustling fishing village and was chosen as the county seat.
Before long, salmon canneries cropped up on the Baker Bay coastline as part of a larger boom that saw the construction of more than 30 canneries along the shores of Lower Columbia River. As was often the case with natural resource extraction industries in the 19th century, overharvesting and waste contributed to a crash in salmon runs and the gradual decline of the canning industry. Nearly 140 years after the cannery boom, salmon are still struggling to endure pressures from habitat loss, pollution, development, and dams that have fundamentally reshaped the Columbia’s hydrology.
It is within the context of the Chinook River’s past that Columbia Land Trust is looking forward with hope for some of the region’s most iconic species. Today the Chinook river system supports 13 federally-listed Columbia River salmon and steelhead species as well as federally listed eulachon (smelt). The Land Trust’s recent conservation efforts and partnerships along the Chinook aim to ensure that these and other species thrive for generations to come.
In 2001, Columbia Land Trust assisted in the transfer of 870 acres from Washington State University to Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), creating the Chinook Unit. WDFW recently expanded the property to include more than 1,000 acres in 2015, and the agency is restoring the landscape to benefit juvenile salmon, elk, and other wildlife. Birders and hunters also make frequent use of the land.
On January 31, 2017, Columbia Land Trust acquired 285 acres just upstream from the Chinook Unit. The property abuts Fort Columbia State Park and almost links it to the WDFW property. The new conservation project protects one mile of Chinook River, three fish-bearing streams, and 245 acres of associated wetland habitats. Beyond the Chinook River frontage, it also includes 30 acres of tidelands in Bakers Bay in the Columbia River itself.
The Land Trust is grateful for the support of its funding partners, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in collaboration with Washington Department of Ecology and the Washington Recreation & Conservation Office: Salmon Recovery Funding Board.