I have been working on the river and in the Oregon wilderness for better than 40 years now and I was pretty naive to a whole list of environmental changes that I remember watching happen. For instance, from 1980 to 1985 we received more than 40 inches of rain each year and that average held steady right up to the 2000s. From 2016 to 2022 that average was only about 22 inches – a decline that also began in about 2000. Just that statistic alone is troubling and I personally believe that human activities and our use of fossil fuels is mostly to blame. Others believe that climate change is natural, a cyclical process and that the current western drought and increasing summer temperatures will eventually pass. But regardless of what you believe, the erratic weather we have experienced the last few years will likely have some impact on your ability to access and enjoy the outdoors to the extent we were all able to engage in, just a decade or so back.
Wildfires have become all too common, two years ago burning through popular recreation areas on both the North Umpqua and North Santiam rivers, destroying millions of acres of forest lands and in some instances raging through small towns that once served as a gateway to some of Oregon’s most beautiful places. The blazes also destroyed dozens of recreational sites and forced the extended closure of miles of river bank to the public. And here in our backyard, many of our neighbors are still struggling to repair their lives from the Holiday Farm Fire that burned through the heart of the McKenzie River Valley in 2020 and changed the river valley so significantly. That all of us alive today will never live long enough to see the river as it was before the Holiday Farm burn. A million acres of eastern Lane County burned, hundreds of homes were destroyed, creating $5.9 billion in economic impacts that are still ongoing.
We just experienced the driest May in Oregon history, not a drop of rain fell and for us longtime Oregonians it was a completely different experience. Fortunately, western Oregon had adequate amounts of precipitation last winter, around 30 inches that temporarily eased a five-year drought, so recreation on our lakes and rivers should last deep into the fall. But be mindful, the wooded forest that holds our freshwater resources is already becoming dangerously dry. Thick with flammable materials that thrived because of the wetter winter and with two of the hottest and driest months just around the corner. Regardless of what you believe is behind the hot and dry weather, human-induced or just cyclical, when fishing or camping remember that just the smallest spark from a boat trailer safety chain or a campfire cinder allowed to blow in the wind could quickly become a monumental catastrophe.
Being a fisherman and perpetual optimist, the Marine Fisheries Services’ prediction of a Willamette spring chinook run 20% higher than last season’s better-than-average returns was good news to me. But numbers in mid-June are lagging and I am starting to have concerns that the actual run size may not be building in density enough to eclipse the 2022 season when 500 to 1,000 Chinook passed over the Willamette Falls. The numbers have dwindled, now only averaging about 300 salmon per day, so reaching last season’s run size is becoming less probable every day we inch closer to summer.
Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t issue predictions about steelhead run sizes, but they are also badly lagging. At press time less than 600 have made their way into the upper Willamette tributaries, an absolutely dismal number for mid-June. With essentially the same life cycle as salmon, born in the river either naturally or in a hatchery, they migrate to the ocean to grow for two or three years and return to the river or hatchery chute as adults to spawn. Considering that we plant nearly 3.5 million hatchery salmon and 250,000 summer steelhead every year into the Willamette River basin, one has to wonder what is happening to our fish?
Climatologists say that our warming climate is the result of our atmosphere having too much carbon, which is at the root of our drying forests and causing ocean acidification that is rendering large parts of the Pacific Ocean much less nurturing for fish, particularly near to the shore. They say, “As bad as habitat loss over a century has been, ocean acidification may be even worse and has reached critical levels in far less time.” To put it simply, the oceans absorb carbon which is acidic and neutralizes calcium in seawater. Calcium is essential to the development of “arthropods” which are tiny shellfish and an essential food source for migrating baby salmon and steelhead when they first reach the ocean.