Nooksack River, Washington

Nooksack River, WA | © Thomas O'Keefe

Nooksack River, WA | © Thomas O’Keefe

The unique and beautiful Nooksack River system is a true gem. Flowing west from the high snowfields and glaciers of Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, and the Twin Sister Mountain Range of the North Cascades to the sparkling, salty waters of the Salish Sea, the Nooksack River weaves its way through forests, farmlands, and several small communities.

The Nooksack River system is home to all five species of native salmon (Chinook, coho, pink, chum and sockeye), steelhead, bull trout, Dolly Varden, resident rainbow trout, resident and sea-run cutthroat trout, bald eagles, black bears, mountain goats, elk, and many other native fish and wildlife species that need intact, wild places to survive.  

The Nooksack is also the lifeblood for local communities that rely on the river for clean water and for tourism income from visitors drawn to the river’s world class whitewater boating, hiking, skiing, and other recreation opportunities. Yet, the majority of the Nooksack River system remains unprotected from harmful activities.

Protecting the Nooksack through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act – the strongest protection we can give to rivers – would permanently safeguard the Nooksack’s unique and treasured natural heritage. The three forks of the Nooksack – the North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork – and numerous tributary streams form the upper Nooksack watershed. Given the high-quality condition of habitat areas in the upper Nooksack, the watershed has become an important conservation priority in the region. Wild and Scenic designation would ensure that the river’s “Outstandingly Remarkable Values” (ORVs) are protected and enhanced in the future and prohibit the construction of new dams or other projects that would degrade the river’s natural flow regime.

In 1990, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) studied the Nooksack River for potential inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The USFS determined that all three forks of the Nooksack, as well as several major tributary streams, were “eligible” for Wild and Scenic designation because of their outstanding fisheries, wildlife, recreation, scenic and historical/cultural values. Washington Department of Ecology has listed the upper forks as a “River(s) of Statewide Significance”. The Northwest Power Planning Council has classified the river as “protected” from hydropower development.

Since the ORVs for the Nooksack River were identified in the 1990 Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Plan, three different fish species in the Nooksack River system have been listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These include: Chinook salmon (Puget Sound Chinook Evolutionary Significant Unit (ESU)), steelhead (Puget Sound steelhead Distinct Population Segment (DPS)) and bull trout (Coastal/Puget Sound bull trout DPS). In addition, small numbers of a unique riverine, or “river-type” (distinct from the common “lake-type” form), sockeye spawn in two forks of the Nooksack River.

Given the Nooksack’s numerous values and administrative protections, a proposal has been developed to permanently protect approximately 100 river miles and 32,000 acres of riverside lands in the upper Nooksack basin, including portions of the three forks and eight tributary streams, under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. The Nooksack Wild and Scenic campaign steering committee is a diverse array of interested citizens, business owners and organizations that have teamed up to build widespread public support necessary to pass Wild and Scenic River legislation for the Nooksack.

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