Agreement intends to help landowners aid salmon


Issue Date: March 20, 2019
By Ching Lee
A group of 10 agricultural landowners in the upper Shasta River and Parks Creek watersheds in Siskiyou County has applied to enter into a Safe Harbor Agreement in which they will take certain conservation measures on their land to benefit coho salmon. At this controlled “wet crossing,” or cattle drinking access point, the riparian area has been fenced, allowing regrowth of aquatic plants. A small beaver dam upstream at far right is another habitat feature that helps fish survival by cooling water temperatures.
Photo/Courtesy Shasta Watershed Conservation Group
Riparian planting, right, and riparian exclusion fencing, left, are examples of habitat improvements being done to aid salmon survival in the Shasta River and Parks Creek watersheds. The riffle seen in this stream is one of many habitat conditions important to the survival of coho salmon.
Photo/Courtesy Shasta Watershed Conservation Group

A group of agricultural landowners in Siskiyou County has sought to enter into a federal agreement to help salmon species in the Shasta River while ensuring their efforts would allow them to continue operating their ranching businesses in a viable way.

Working as the Shasta Watershed Conservation Group, 10 landowners in the watersheds of the upper Shasta River—a tributary of the Klamath River—and Parks Creek applied earlier this month for a permit to enroll in a Safe Harbor Agreement.

The voluntary program intends to encourage landowners to take certain conservation measures on their land to benefit protected species under the federal Endangered Species Act. In exchange for their efforts, the agreement protects landowners from liability should their conservation practices result in incidental take of the species—in this case, coho salmon, which is listed as threatened in Northern California under the federal and state ESA.

The group's application remains under review by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for issuing individual permits to the landowners under the agreement, set for 20 years.

Jim Lynch, an environmental attorney for the group, said he expects the agencies will publish a notice of the agreement in the Federal Register in the coming weeks. There will then be a 30-day public comment period on the draft application.

What makes this particular Safe Harbor Agreement unique, Lynch said, is the number of parties involved. Other Safe Harbor Agreements have typically been between federal regulatory agencies and a single individual or entity.

"It's a pretty unprecedented process at the scale that we're doing it," he said. "It's a model, we think, for future issues like this that involve water and agricultural uses."

Getting to this point took years, said Jack Roggenbuck, one of the landowners and president of the Shasta Watershed Conservation Group. As far back as 2011, when Siskiyou County pursued a project to recover coho salmon in the Shasta River, affected landowners had discussed ways they could support the county's effort, but they wanted assurances they would be protected against incidental take of the fish—under both the federal and state ESAs.

"The main goal for each of the landowners has always been that we must maintain viability in the agricultural business, and at the same time providing habitat improvements that would reintroduce coho salmon to the upper Shasta," Roggenbuck said.

Working with federal and state agencies, the California Farm Bureau Federation and conservation groups such as California Trout and The Nature Conservancy, the landowners developed the terms and conditions of the agreement. During this process, they realized the complexity of trying to reach a solution that would work for all parties involved, Roggenbuck said.

"That's what's taken so long," he added, "because you can't take one single application and make it work for every one of these 10 landowners, because the properties are all different and each individual landowner has a unique set of conditions."

To address these differences, all the participants in the agreement sign on to a general "template," whereby they agree to conserve water for the benefit of the fish. The agreement then gets down to specific site plans unique to the individual landowner and the capabilities associated with their operations, dealing with each property's size, configuration, soil type, water use, habitat diversity and other conditions.

The site plans spell out best-management practices and other actions each landowner would do, including activities such as riparian fencing, riparian planting of native trees and shrubs, reducing tailwater discharge through irrigation efficiencies, grazing management, habitat improvements by introduction of gravel bars and woody cover, and removal of fish-passage barriers.

Though the National Marine Fisheries Service will issue the individual permits, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife also has been involved in the process, Lynch said, to ensure the individual site plans and federal permits remain consistent with the California ESA.

Roggenbuck said the Shasta Watershed Conservation Group—which the landowners formed in 2017—has taken a "start small" approach to Safe Harbor projects with individual efforts that fit the conditions and business needs of each landowner. The group has already identified, implemented and evaluated small, individual projects for their impact on improving fish habitat.

"This approach has yielded some positive results and is validating such practices for larger-scale use," he said.

He noted that projects such as pipelines, tailwater collection berms, fish-screen improvements, fish-passage barrier identification and removal, and riparian plantings "have all shown promise toward habitat improvement goals" and that landowners have been supportive of these actions by developing them in their site plans and their participation in the Safe Harbor process.

"While each landowner already realizes the importance of proper land management, each also realizes the importance to do so following sound science and acting within the law," Roggenbuck added. "This (Safe Harbor Agreement) will be both a tool and a layer of protection to better manage agriculture and the natural environment."

Ann Willis, a research engineer at the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences, has been working with the Hart Ranch in Siskiyou County on a separate Safe Harbor Agreement focused on improving fish habitat. She said the landowners in that project also started by trying something small on their property, just "to see how that goes."

From a research standpoint, she described the collaboration with the ranch as "very successful," in that she's been able to obtain the information she needs to help establish a scientific basis to guide certain project decisions. Being open and transparent about her research, what she's doing and sharing the results as they come along, she said, has helped foster support from the agricultural community in the region.

"Little by little, we have absolutely built a wonderful network of landowners who are interested in what we're doing and open to letting us work on their properties and giving us some really valuable access that we deeply appreciate," Willis said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.