The Comeback River: Good-bye Road! Hello Chinook! - Columbia Land Trust
Our Haul Road project is freeing the Klickitat, one mile at a time.

The fishermen and I were smiling. It was a record run for fall Chinook on the Klickitat River. Drift boats floated downstream with their easy bounty, while I was perched high on a bedrock wall, shielding my eyes from the bright sun. Below me, I watched a Chinook salmon swim from the midstream channel into a deep pool, a place where cooler, oxygen-rich water and slower currents make good holding habitat on the long journey upstream.

The scene was particularly satisfying because just two days ago this pool didn’t exist. The reason for its formation lay directly beneath my feet: a 20-foot-tall, quarter-milelong vein of bedrock that had been buried beneath 12,000 cubic yards of fill and riprap for nearly 80 years. The purpose of all that fill was to elevate and protect from erosion a 12-mile-long section of paved road—one used by logging trucks to haul timber from the upper reaches of the river to the mill in the town of Klickitat. In 1996, floods destroyed the road in several places, making it impassable.

Most of us understand the impacts of a dam on a river because the impacts are so obvious: The water stops flowing downstream. But a river is multidimensional, and while it moves collectively downstream, it flows sideways, backwards, up and down along the way, and it will interact with all objects placed in its path, for better or worse. Replacing a diverse and complex shoreline with an unyielding wall of riprap is like putting the river in a straight jacket. Deep pools that salmon need cannot form. Side channels cannot form. Riffles and eddies disappear. Removing a road from the floodplain can free a river just as removing a dam does.

Using funds from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, Columbia Land Trust purchased the old road in 2007. Since then, together with Yakama Nation Fisheries, we’ve removed 4.5 miles of road from the floodplain and plan to remove 4 more. This October, I watched another mile of the road disappear, the asphalt hauled away, the bedrock daylighted, side channels reconnected, the terrain regraded, the disturbed soils seeded with native grasses. It’s bewildering to see bulldozers and excavators as healing hands on the landscape. There’s something very final about watching a road put to rest. And something incredibly joyous about watching Chinook after Chinook swim into a pool reborn. —Lindsay Cornelius