Siuslaw Watershed Council

The Story of the Siuslaw

The siuslaw was historically second only to the Columbia river in the amount of Coho salmon that returned to the river after being in the ocean for 3-5 years. Historically, there was an average of 260,000 coho salmon returning to the Siuslaw, that number went as low as 500 returning adults in 1997. How did this watershed, once a thriving ecosystem supporting the second strongest run of coho on the Oregon coast, drop to this dismal number, less than 1% of its historic average? To answer that question we have to start describing the watershed before land alterations and settlement began by European American settlers in the early 19th century.

Interestingly, millions of years ago before the coast range was uplifted form tectonic forces that shaped our present day landscape the Siuslaw was connected to the McKenzie River system, draining the ancient cascade mountains directly to the ocean. Sea level was much lower during that geologic period and the river carved a deep mouth through the continental shelf to reach the paleo ocean. Because of this past geologic history, we have an extensive estuary and many low gradient streams that feed into the mainstem Siuslaw which was formed with much more water flowing through. This geologic history has made the Siuslaw a vibrant salmon fishery in the past, with the excellent geomorphic conditions to create a thriving salmon fishery.

Prior to european american settlement in the 1800’s, the Siuslaw River valley was a mosaic complex of braided channels, tidal swamps, and freshwater wetlands further upstream. The historic tidal swamps were dominated by Sitka spruce, but crabapple swamp and shore pine swamp were also found in the Siuslaw River estuary. Old-growth cedar, Sitka spruce, and hardwoods were also present along the lower valley tributaries.

Before european settlers arrived in the 1880s, the Siuslaw River watershed was the home of The Native Siuslaw People, for whom the river eventually became named; the original name of the river was “iktat’uu, as the Siuslaw People called it. The Siuslaw Tribe managed the watershed for hundreds of generations and thousands of years. Their culture evolved from an observation and a stewardship of their lands and waters, utilizing ceremonies and gathering techniques that encouraged balance and abundance for future generations.

After European American settlers came to the region, they simplified the landscape, taming the once mighty river to fit into the newly made landscape, forcing rivers to single channels on the sides of the valleys to make room for farms and families. The forest was cut down and used for the prosperity of these new inhabitants of the basin, and land was developed in the european model. Beaver, once plentiful across the landscape, were trapped and their fur harvested and sold. The landscape changed dramatically, and so did the population of the coho salmon.

After a century of logging and large fires, the forest vegetation is now a heterogeneous mixture of patch sizes and young-to-mature seral stages with a large proportion of the forest less than 80 years old. Old growth forest is extremely fragmented after years of intensive logging and disturbance.Today we are working to bring back some attributes of the landscape which thrived when The Siuslaw People managed the lands. We’re working to restore complex river channels with backwater pools and wetlands soaked from the coastal rains.