Illabot Creek Field Trip

Guest blog by Bonnie Rice, Associate Director of Conservation in our Northwest Regional Office

This morning was one of those mornings when I feel very fortunate to be working at American Rivers, protecting more Washington State rivers and streams through Wild and Scenic River designation. Over the past two years, American Rivers has been working with The Nature Conservancy and other partners to secure Wild and Scenic River protections for Illabot Creek, one of the most biologically-rich tributaries of the entire Skagit River System. Wild and Scenic River designation will permanently protect Illabot Creek’s free-flowing character, clean water, and outstanding fish and wildlife values.

As I left home early this morning, there was a heavy fog in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, but as I headed east on Highway 20 toward Rockport the fog gave way to sun and a beautiful clear blue sky with views of mountains and deep green forests. I was to meet several other parties at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport, including Congressman Rick Larsen and his staff. Recognizing Illabot Creek’s special fish and wildlife values, Congressman Larsen introduced legislation in March to designate Illabot Creek as Wild and Scenic, and today he was here in his home district to see firsthand this important place that he is working to protect.

Joining us on the tour, led by Bob Carey and Lisa Bellefond of The Nature Conservancy, was a diverse group: in addition to Congressman Larsen and his staff, Skagit County Commissioner Sharon Dillon, representatives from Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Seattle City Light (which owns land along Illabot Creek), U.S. Forest Service, and Fidalgo Fly Fishers were there in a solid show of support for protection of this important stream.



First stop was Illabot Slough, an incredibly important spawning spot for pink salmon. We learned that this area provides important off-channel habitat, and as we stood at the edge of a stunning blue-green pool, we saw hundreds of pink salmon on the bottom. What an inspiring sight! Illabot Creek is one of the most important producers of pink salmon in the whole Skagit system. It is also home to Chinook, chum, and coho salmon, as well as steelhead and bull trout. Because of the numbers and diversity of fish, and old-growth trees in the river corridor, Illabot Creek is also home to the largest roosting colony of bald eagles in the lower 48. Bear, cougar, otters, and other wildlife depend on Illabot Creek’s clean, cold water too.



Next we headed up the creek to some beautiful whitewater riffles which WDFW fish biologist Brett Barkdull explained provide important habitat for threatened steelhead. Brett told us a great story of one day when he was doing fish surveys on the creek, and seeing a black bear, coyote, and eagles all on the same gravel bar, feeding on spawned-out salmon. Brett said he has seen more wildlife in the Illabot Creek corridor than anywhere else he works in Skagit or Whatcom counties. This is truly a special place!



Greta Movasagghi of the Forest Service explained to the group that the Forest Service evaluated Illabot Creek’s eligibility for Wild and Scenic designation back in 1990, and found it eligible due to its outstanding fish and wildlife values. Wild and Scenic designation would protect Illabot Creek from hydropower projects such as those proposed on the creek in the 1980s, and other water development projects that could impair Illabot’s free-flowing nature or fish and wildlife values. Upon passage of the legislation introduced by Congressman Larsen (and Senator Murray’s companion legislation in the Senate, also introduced in March), Illabot Creek would become part of the Skagit Wild and Scenic River System, designated in 1978.



It was a great day to be out on a beautiful wild stream, knowing that so many people have come together to make sure that it is protected both for generations to come, and for the many species that depend on Illabot’s clean, cold water, old-growth trees, and important riparian habitat. As we departed, we all agreed that we will work hard to see the legislation passed in this Congressional session.