Trout Unlimited restores salmon habitat in MLT preserve

January 13, 2021

Imagine you are a salmon.  After nearly three years of ocean life, you begin to feel a change. Every instinct in your body is telling you it is time to leave the salty waters that you have come to know and return to the ancestral fresh waters of your birth. You make it to the mouth of the Noyo River and head upstream. Sometimes the going is easy, sometimes there are obstacles, but you keep trying… until you reach the berm of an old rail crossing. The culverts that were installed years ago to allow water to move under the crossing are collapsing, and there is nowhere to go. This was the situation until very recently.

In late 2020, Trout Unlimited’s  North Coast Coho Project completed a massive undertaking to restore salmon habitat along the historic Skunk Train rail line in several spots where it crosses the Noyo River. This included work in Mendocino Land Trust’s Noyo River Redwoods Preserve. Old failing culverts that blocked the upstream journey of salmon have been replaced with modern railroad crossings that leave rivers accessible for wildlife and ensure safe passage for fish.

Read the full press release from our friends at Trout Unlimited below.

Conservation partnership restores salmon habitat along Skunk Train railroad

Trout Unlimited-led effort replaced old culverts blocking fish passage along the Skunk Train’s famed Redwood Route between Willits and Fort Bragg.

FORT BRAGG, Calif. Trout Unlimited’s North Coast Coho Project announced the completion today of three projects on the Noyo River that will restore access for endangered Coho salmon and threatened steelhead to nearly two miles of spawning and rearing habitat in the upper watershed. The projects replaced two culverts along the Skunk Train railway and a third culvert on an adjacent timber road that prevented fish from utilizing valuable habitat in a watershed that is vital to Coho salmon recovery in the state. 

Trout Unlimited’s partners on these projects include the Mendocino Railway (commonly known as the Skunk Train), the Soper-Wheeler Company, the Mendocino Land Trust, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Michael Love and Associates, AECOM, Granite Construction, the California Fish Passage Forum, The Nature Conservancy, and the Salmonid Restoration Foundation.

“The Skunk Train is a business that is absolutely committed to projects like this. We have been operating along the Noyo River for 135 years now,” said Robert Pinoli, owner and “Chief Skunk” of the Skunk Train. “In the old days, we had so many salmon and steelhead in the river that people used to say you could walk across on their backs. Today, that isn’t so.”

The Noyo River and its tributaries support Central California Coast Coho salmon, which are listed as endangered, and populations of Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. California Central Coast Coho have undergone a precipitous decline in the last 100 years and are now on the brink of extinction. 

Although the Noyo River is home to one of the most stable populations of California Coho, the federal recovery plan rates this population at moderate to high risk of extinction. From 2013-2018, the 5-year average for returning adult Coho was 2,755 (the recovery target for the Noyo is 4,000).

“Restoring access to more than 1 mile of Coho Salmon habitat in a watershed with consistent returns of Coho salmon gives me such hope for recovery of this species on the Mendocino Coast. Welcome home Coho salmon!” said Chris Ramsey, Senior Environmental Specialist with CDFW.  

Both state and federal recovery plans for Coho salmon on the Mendocino Coast identify restoring fish passage and mitigating sediment sources along the Noyo River as important action steps for species recovery. Decrepit culverts prevent fish from moving throughout the river system and can cause erosion into streams, sometimes delivering amounts of sediment so large the impact on fish is catastrophic.

Anna Halligan, North Coast Coho Project Director with Trout Unlimited, said “One of the culverts under the Skunk Train was in such poor condition that the hillslope around it had begun to erode and was delivering fine sediment into the Upper Noyo River. A large storm event could have saturated the soils and caused slope failure which may have buried about 3 miles of the river under one foot of fine sediment, which is roughly equal to 840 full dump trucks.. This kind of disaster would not only impair water quality in the river, it could also  significantly impact a salmon population that is showing signs of recovery and, if the culvert had collapsed, it would have affected tourism on the Skunk Train’s Willits line.” 

The Noyo River is currently listed under the federal Clean Water Act as an impaired water body due to excessive sediment and elevated water temperatures. This project has been in the works since 2010, when Trout Unlimited commissioned a detailed assessment of sediment sources and fish passage barriers along the railway. 

The construction phase of these projects began in June of this year and was completed in October. The two railway culverts were replaced with large structural steel arches. A third culvert on a private timber road directly upstream from one of the rail culverts was replaced with a bridge. The stream channels were also restored during construction, ensuring fish and other aquatic organisms will be able to migrate successfully. 

“Large projects such as these require extensive cooperation, dedicated partners, and time. This project never would have happened without the investment of so many diverse groups all committed to Coho Salmon and their habitat,” said Ramsey.

“Working with an entity like Trout Unlimited makes what may seem impossible, possible,” said Pinoli. “It is their vision and passion that has helped us to see this project through to completion. The fish are winners today, and we couldn’t be happier.” 

These Noyo River projects also benefit local communities by employing local contractors, helping to sustain existing fisheries, and supporting a mainstay of the Fort Bragg and Willits tourism economy. “Projects like these can take a long time to get off the ground and require a lot of support from public and private entities, but their benefits are immediate and long-lasting,” said Halligan. “Clean water, healthy fisheries, and a robust local economy are good for everyone.”

Funding for these projects was provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the California Fish Passage Forum, The Nature Conservancy, and the Salmon Restoration Association (with funding raised from their annual World Largest Salmon BBQ event in Fort Bragg).

Contact:     Anna Halligan, Trout Unlimited, (707) 734-0112

Salmon Recovery

Photo by Oregon Dept. of Forestry