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Habitat repair lures salmon back to Clayoquot

Photos by Rick Telford

Rick Telford was a little surprised when he stumbled on naked revellers in Virgin Falls, last Jan. 1. It may have been mild, but the glacier fed waters are still frigid on Canada Day.

Virgin Falls are about an hour's drive up Tofino Inlet on logging roads that challenge the hardiest of four wheel drive trucks. Nowadays, loggers in these parts are almost as rare as nudists. The nearby town of Ucluelet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, lost 400 forestry jobs in the last decade.

Telford is a veteran mechanic of numerous B.C. logging camps. He returns almost daily to the backcountry above Clayoquot and Barkley sounds, where he shows visitors the wildlife, wild flowers, old growth and new growth before serving them lunch high above the falls.

He is not the only ex-forestry employee plying the rugged roads. Funded by public and private sponsors, former loggers have joined unemployed fishermen, government biologists and local Native and non-native people to restore the area's once rich salmon habitat.

Their work centers on the Kennedy watershed, home to the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples and the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.

During the 1980s and '90s, the Kennedy Watershed and Clayoquot Sound were the focus of debate and confrontation over logging practices in some of the last intact old growth forest and freshwater ecosystems of coastal North America.

Sixty years of logging and road building had left the area's salmon streams choked with debris. Creeks like the Kootowis and Staghorn had been highly productive fish streams, whose cutthroat trout, chum and coho salmon supported First Nations, commercial and sports fisheries.

The fish were integral to a thriving wildlife population, including black bears, bald eagles, cougars and wolves.

But as Telford explained, logging was not the only cause of the salmon's demise.

"During the Second World War, the Kootowis Creek salmon migration was blocked by a water supply dam till the 1950s. Even when it was cleared, the government in the 1960s didn't care about the damage to salmon streams because they planned to build salmon hatcheries - they were going to build a better fish."

By the early 1990s, salmon that once returned in thousands had dwindled to hundreds or less.

The fact that Telford's tour now covers the Kootowis-Staghorn Creek Fisheries Restoration trail illustrates how much has changed in a decade.

In 1994, International Forest Products (Interfor) launched a project to restore the creeks' salmon habitat. The project spawned a coalition of sponsors including MacMillan Bloedel (now Weyerhaeuser), government agencies Forest Renewal B.C. and Fisheries Renewal B.C., the non-profit Central Westcoast Forest Society and local First Nations.

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