The Skunk and the salmon

Lisa Bolton and Anna Halligan, TU's North Coast Coho Project team, are stoked about getting "skunked."

 

By Sam Davidson

It is only 25 miles, as the crow flies, between the hamlets of Fort Bragg and Willits, near the southern end of California’s fabled Lost Coast. But when you make this journey by train, through a landscape as rugged as you’ll find anywhere, it feels like you’re traveling a hundred years into the past.

In a sense, you are. Private timber interests built a rail line between Fort Bragg and Willits in the late 1800s, yard by difficult yard, to haul the area’s rich harvest of redwood out of the backcountry to sawmills on the coast. Today, this rail line – affectionately known as the Skunk Train – carries only passengers along its forty mile length.

And if you are an angler with an eye for good salmon and steelhead habitat, a ride on the Skunk Train -- plenty scenic and entertaining in its own right – is an exercise in fantasy.

That’s because the Skunk Train travels next to and over the Noyo River for much of its length. The Noyo, largely undeveloped, still provides classic north coast salmon-steelhead spawning habitat: deep pools shaded by dense canopy and understory, good substrate in the right places, and cold, clean water.

I got to experience this fantasy recently, on a field tour of proposed habitat improvement projects in the Noyo drainage. There is no way to get to these sites other than to ride the Skunk Train.

I can feel your sympathy.

The proposed projects – led by TU’s North Coast Coho Project – aim to improve fish passage and habitat at sites where the railway crosses the river.

Salmon and steelhead need rivers like the Noyo, now more than ever, as their runs in this region have been greatly diminished over the last fifty years. In particular, the native salmon of smaller coastal drainages north of San Francisco, the coho, is in real trouble. It’s now listed as Endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

As with much of TU’s work, the North Coast Coho Project is grounded in partnerships. Across multiple watersheds in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, the project works with private timber companies, resource agencies, engineering and designs firms, and other conservation organizations to restore and improve habitat and fish passage for salmon and steelhead.

On the three project sites along the Skunk Train line, TU’s partners include the Salmon Restoration Association, Pacific Watershed Associates, Michael Love and Associates, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

And, of course, the “Chief Skunk” himself: Robert Pinoli, owner of the Mendocino Railway Company, which operates the Skunk Train. Pinoli started working for the railway as a boy and has a keen interest in preserving the historic as well as natural qualities which make the Skunk Train so unique – including salmon and steelhead in the Noyo River.

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