Once a Doubter, Adna Property Owner Turns to Conservation and Fish Advocacy

STREAM TEAM: Conservation District Establishes Lewis County Stream Team to Promote Conservation, Education


Bob Russell jumps enthusiastically out of his pickup onto the side of the road near an unassuming portion of state Route 6, just east of Adna.

He runs over to a nearby stream — Mill Creek, it’s convergence with the highway about a half-mile from its confluence with the Chehalis River. The creek is slow moving, filled with plenty of debris.

But this isn’t just any creek. This creek also flows through the foothills to the north and through multiple properties, including Russell’s own.

It also produces salmon.

“For me, I think people don’t realize that salmon are in their backyard. We’ve not communicated it well enough. There is no signage on any of these streets that say this is a salmon passage,” the 63-year-old Chehalis resident said over the sound of passing cars.

“We’re not communicating, and I just think that people would treat the environment where the salmon were much better if they knew they were there. I know I did.”

For Russell, it all began back almost eight years ago, back when he was approached by Lewis County Conservation District staff informing him they believed Mill Creek was used by salmon in the fall.

He didn’t think so because he’d never seen one — and neither did the other four dozen or so property owners living along the creek.


‘Oh, I Was Excited’ 

On a recent cold, sunny day, Russell walked with his black Labs, Rigby and Selah, near the confluence of Mill and Wisner creeks.

He tossed a rubber ball into the stream. Rigby — eager and attentive — followed his owner’s command to sit and wait.

“OK,” Russell said, his simple command punctuated with the dog splashing, full force, into the creek.

This is where it started.

Back in 2008, Kelly Verd, special projects coordinator with the Lewis County Conservation District, was conducting a habitat survey in the area during a culvert removal project on the main stem of Mill Creek that was blocking fish downstream of Russell’s property.

She’d heard from a coworker at another agency there used to be fish upstream from the location, but that they hadn’t seen any sightings in recent years and the creeks were mapped out wrong.

Russell said he first got in touch with the conservation district around 2013. Verd had told him that Mill Creek had coho run potential by way of the Chehalis River. But he wasn’t so sure.

That changed one rainy day in November 2014. Russell caught a glimpse of something spectacular.

He was walking the creek that day along a portion of his 88-acre property, coming down a hill along Wisner Creek, when he came upon a beaver dam.

“The rains had come in two days before, and as I was walking in I said ‘oh, the dam broke out’ — and the way they tend to break out is on one side, and they tend to swing like a door. And as I was looking at that dam, here comes a frickin’ hen — 5- or 6-pound silver — swimming half a mile up,” Russell said.

He ran home and called up the conservation district to report his findings. They were right — fish were using the stream, or at least they were trying to.

“Oh, I was so excited,” he said.

A Shifting Perception

Invigorated by the sighting, the Lewis County Conservation District reached out to him around that time with prospects of a stream enhancement project for Wisner Creek.

The previous owner of the property had attempted to reroute the creek channel by excavation for a hay field, but had pretty much destroyed the creek in the process and converted it into shallow wetlands.

It was a miracle in and of itself that Russell saw that fish after the flooding — the stream was nearly impassable, but a strong enough fish could make the trek during high-flow events, he said.

“Seeing is believing. He really became quite an advocate, but Bob’s a pretty enthusiastic guy,” Verd said.

The Wisner Creek restoration effort would eventually get grant funding to the tune of $35,468 — mostly from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board — to begin a three-year reconstruction effort, which included reconstruction, maintenance and planting of 850 native shrubs, spruce and cedar trees.

When the trees grow high, the low-lying, invasive canary grass will die off, returning the land to a wet meadow and back to its natural state. They were also able to make fish improvements as well to the creek, establishing deep pools. Rerouting a 300-foot portion of the stream also opened up about a mile of habitat upstream for fish.

During the first big rain in November, and only during a window of about two weeks, coho salmon use the creek. Verd said it’s possible cutthroat also utilize Mill and Wisner.

Russell — a retired paper pulper — describes himself as a former beaver killer-turned-fish advocate. Back when he first purchased his property, he turned his nose to environmental issues and conservationists. But his perceptions shifted over time speaking to conservationists and loggers.

“When I bought this in 2007 and 2008, there was no environmental thing in my head — I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t know what critical areas were. I wasn’t a wetland scientist at the time. I bought it. I was just a capitalist, like everybody else raping the land, burning plastic, doing whatever,” he said. “It just changed me. Once you get the data, you can’t go back and do the (things) you did before.”

Verd also saw that change in Russell.

“When we first met him, he knew about fish but never really thought of it before. So the more he learned about the project, the more he became the project’s biggest advocate. He’s changed his mind over the years and he’s really a conservationist now,” she said.

His biggest fear now is that developers, counties, municipalities and even his own neighbors are going to do things that exacerbate the problem of damaging fish habitat.

When asked about his stance on the proposal to build a water retention dam along the Chehalis River near Pe Ell, Russell said he’s “still trying to figure it out.” He’s somewhere in between.

“It’s hard to fathom that we’re going to win this battle without both,” he said.


Reviving the Stream Team

The Lewis County Conservation District is reviving an old countywide education and volunteer program to help locals learn about fish, watersheds and fish habitat — and Russell’s property will be the pilot project.

Kenna Fosnacht, the conservation district’s resource technician, is leading the charge to establish the Lewis County Stream Team, which will be modeled off other successful programs in Grays Harbor and Thurston counties. Part of the funding for it is coming from the Office of the Chehalis Basin.

She hopes the work will be educational and helpful to community members.

“I want them to understand that there are salmon in our streams and they are worth protecting, and so they can take some amount of ownership in that,” Fosnacht said. “I’m in the early stages of getting it started, but I think it could be something great for the community.”

The project will at first focus on continuing Wisner Creek efforts on Russell’s property, but will grow in focus and scope as more people pick up interest. The group will host a tree planting event Saturday, Feb. 12, to kick off the efforts. 

Tree Planting at Wisner and Mill Creeks

Who: Lewis County Stream Team and volunteers.

What: Planting trees and shrubs.

Where: 266 Jefferies Road, Chehalis, Washington. At the parking lot located on the right side after Glenview Lane. Look for the salmon signs.

When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12. 

Why: To improve water quality and fish habitat, as well as to learn about stream restoration projects, beavers as ecosystem engineers and coho salmon in the Chehalis Basin. Work gloves and tools will be provided.