Tribal Stewardship and Ridge-to-River Restoration of the Lower Klamath and Blue Creek Sanctuary

Year: 2022
Presenter/s: Sarah Beesley
Symposium Session: 2022 - 08 Beyond Dam Removal: Ecological Restoration of the Klamath Basin
Topics covered: climate change, community involvement, environmental justice, fish-salmon, fish-steelhead, floodplain, groundwater, riparian, temperature, terrestrial species, traditional ecological knowledge, uplands, water quality, wetlands, wildfire, and wood


The Yurok Tribe is the largest tribe in California. Ancestral Territory includes several north coast watersheds with the Lower Klamath River Sub-basin at its heart. The river is the life blood of the Yurok and they hold sacred their role as stewards and protectors of the land and water. The Yurok Tribe Reservation encompasses a one-mile strip along each side of the lower 44 miles of the river. Tragically, most of the Reservation and sub-basin have been subjected to intensive land use under non-Tribal management since the mid-1800s. However, with new partnerships and creative means, the Yurok Tribe is regaining ownership and responsibility for their lands.

Yurok Fisheries has built strong partnerships with non-Tribal landholders to implement needed fisheries habitat enhancements. Work to date has primarily occurred on privately owned industrial timberlands with land management constraints limiting the scope and scale of restoration. Even under these constraints, Yurok Fisheries and our partner Fiori GeoSciences are implementing innovative and effective, process-based restoration which includes complementary use of constructed log jams, creation of off-channel wetlands and other floodplain enhancements, bioengineering, and installation/stewardship of beaver dam analogues. Now, as the Yurok Tribe regains ownership of their lands, opportunities exist to expand from project or reach level treatments to more holistic regenerative actions at the landscape scale. Key to this effort is re-acquisition and designation of lower Blue Creek as a forest and salmon sanctuary.

Blue Creek is the largest Lower Klamath tributary and is of significant cultural and biological importance. Blue Creek Sanctuary goals focus on 1) enhancing water quality and climate resiliency; 2) greatly improving conditions for native fish and wildlife; 3) promoting healthy late seral forests; 4) re-establishing vital prairies and oak woodlands; and 5) strengthening Yurok culture and sustainability by revitalizing traditional lifeways such as tending to the health of the land and water. The Sanctuary offers an amazing opportunity for an indigenous nation to rewild tribal lands ravaged by industrial timber operations through ecological stewardship that incorporates traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), tribal-led western science, and innovative restoration.

Evolution and expansion of fisheries restoration in Yurok Country demonstrates effective use of innovative techniques and ecological stewardship that can help inform other tribes and restoration scientists facing similar challenges (loss of ecological function, species declines, climate change). Techniques include biogeomorphic valley floor restoration and comprehensive road removal treatments (full recontouring to restore surface and ground water hydrology, improve summer baseflow quality and quantity, and promote healthy forest regeneration). Although there are challenges to actualizing Tribal stewardship (navigating within a colonial-based regulatory system, entrenchment of outdated practices, overcoming paradigms such as the promotion of a one and done approach rather than embracing active wild tending to actualize reciprocal benefits) tribes of the Klamath River and other basin partners are gaining ground in this movement. Our overall experience shows that land sovereignty is critical to implementing effective ridge to river stewardship and reinforces the recognition that integrating TEK and western science is key to boosting and maintaining ecological function, sustainability, and resiliency.