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Portland Parks Managed with Salmon in Mind

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Restoration, January 2003

In Wilderness is the preservation of the World, wrote Henry David Thoreau back in 1862. That belief has kept civilization returning to the wild and bringing pieces of the wild back into our cities, mostly in the form of parks designed to help us free ourselves from the trammels and stress of urban life and enjoy nature...


Read the article at Restoration.

Portland Parks Managed with Salmon in Mind

By John Baur

"In Wilderness is the preservation of the World," wrote Henry David Thoreau back in 1862.

That belief has kept civilization returning to the wild and bringing pieces of the wild back into our cities, mostly in the form of parks designed to help us free ourselves from the trammels and stress of urban life and enjoy nature. But almost as long ago as Thoreau wrote, we have also known that the human need for wilderness can have negative impacts on nature. By our very use of nature, we can endanger it.

It is with that in mind that the organization Salmon Safe entered into a partnership in 2001 with the city of Portland to create a set of standards for park planning and management. The first draft of these standards has been completed and submitted to a scientific panel for review.

Salmon Safe is a private nonprofit organization promoting healthy land-management practices that keep rivers clean and safe for salmon to spawn and thrive. Originally founded in 1995 as part of the Pacific Rivers Council, it split off into an independent body in 2000.

Most of Salmon Safe's energy and efforts have been aimed at forging coalitions with agricultural industry groups to mitigate and reverse the impact of farming practices on rivers. Using standards developed to restore water quality and improve salmon habitat, Salmon Safe's independent, professional consultants have certified more than 30,000 acres in critical Northwest agricultural watersheds, including the Willamette and Hood River basins in Oregon, the Feather River in California, and the White Salmon watershed in Washington. In partnership with the Oregon wine industry, the organization has also helped develop and apply Salmon Safe standards for viticulture (see the October 2002 issue of Restoration). Growers who have been certified gain the advantage of having their products bear the Salmon Safe logo, and the organization conducted a two-year retail education program to bring that distinction to the attention of Northwest consumers.

In 1998 Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber called Salmon Safe "the best example yet of the cooperative voluntary approach that is needed to prevent the extinction of the wild salmon." But the organization came to realize that agricultural practices in rural areas were not the only factor affecting fish habitat in Northwest waterways. Cleaning the rivers through the countryside is good, but there's a certain degree of futility if that river immediately becomes fouled when it passes through urban areas.

Salmon Safe forged its partnership with the city of Portland out of this analysis. According to Deborah Lev, the Portland Parks and Recreation employee who helped develop the standards with Salmon Safe, the city was seeking ways to ensure it was following the best possible management practices for its thousands of acres of parks at the same time the organization was seeking ways to extend its impact. "The city was looking for opportunities to respond to the endangered species listing of the fish here. We were looking for opportunities to make sure we as a city were setting a good example and doing the best we can," she said.

Portland is an ideal test case for developing such a plan, Lev said. The city boasts a wealth of parks, ranging in size from Forest Park, which at 5,090 acres is the largest forested city park in the United States, to a patch of land only a few square inches near the waterfront, designated as the smallest city park in the world. Some parks are sprawling sports facilities. Others are small neighborhood parks or rose gardens.

The standards are based on five factors, Lev said, which lay out the biological basis for the program. The factors and the activity they are designed to curb are

  • Water quality -- Introduction of sediment, energy (temperature), or chemicals and nutrients from surface or subsurface runoff
  • Water quantity -- Increase in the magnitude and frequency of peak flows from natural soils and vegetation types converted to impervious surfaces; or reduction in instream flows caused by surface or subsurface water withdrawal for irrigation
  • Instream habitat -- Direct alteration of instream habitat, including streambed and stream banks through bank armoring, channelization, or removal of instream wood
  • Riparian habitat -- Elimination or reduction of riparian vegetation that can provide stream habitat functions, including shade, bank stabilization, source of instream cover (large and small wood), and food-chain support
  • Fish passage -- Poorly designed or inadequately maintained stream crossings that are barriers to passage by adult or juvenile fish

For a park system to become certified, it needs to address six key management categories that collectively deal with these impacts:

  1. Instream habitat protection and restoration
  2. Riparian and wetland protection and restoration
  3. Management of water use (irrigation activities)
  4. Management of surface water runoff
  5. Erosion control
  6. Chemical and nutrient containment

Lev pointed out that the standards are aimed primarily at management, rather than the specific existing conditions at any given park. "The guidelines are what Salmon Safe calls 'high level' guidelines," she said. "They are not specific to any one kind of park. They are applicable to different kinds of parks."

"The main focus is how we're managing our parks," she said. "We want to make sure we're doing the best job we can, using the best management practices, making sure our impact on listed species is as little as possible."

There is a section on restoration of existing parks, Lev said, and any new park development would have to meet the Salmon Safe standards. But the draft recognizes that the city parks already exist, and it doesn't demand immediate changes. Instead, it calls for "significant progress" in addressing landscape design and infrastructure features that degrade salmon habitat, such as pavement areas, road crossings, or concrete-lined streams.

For the plan's purposes, progress can include a prioritized list for projects throughout the park system, master plans for specific projects, and other planning documents.

Certification requires that progress in correcting any deficiencies be shown over a five-year period and that the progress be based on priority for salmon and feasibility for the park system as a whole.

"Many parks were developed long before our sensitivities to these issues had grown," Lev said. It's what a city does with what it already has that matters. "A lot of our parks have baseball fields," she said. "The standards talk about the best way to manage that ball field so it will have minimal impact on the habitat. They don't insist that we move the field."

Some infrastructure may need to be changed before a park system can be certified, she said, but mostly such issues are noted for future improvements. The draft plan calls for "significant progress."

According to Dan Kent, executive director of Salmon Safe, the draft criteria now being reviewed by scientists should become a standard for any park system anywhere. That suits Deborah Lev just fine. Part of Portland's motivation for taking part in the program, after all, was to become an example, a standard to which other cities can aspire in managing their own parks.

"We like being held up as a good example," she said. "We're also interested in other cities using the same standards. We're doing this in part to make sure we're doing the best we can and we're following the best management practices that the scientific community can come up with, and we're getting recognition for it. We're asking our citizens to change their behavior (in how they use the parks), and we're hoping our example can prompt other cities to do the same."

To that end, while the scientific review is going on, Lev is involved with Kent in helping to call attention to the new criteria. Interest has been expressed throughout the Northwest, including from the parks departments of Seattle, Eugene, Salem, and Corvallis. An electronic copy of the standards is available at the Salmon Safe Web site,

John Baur is a science writer with Oregon Sea Grant.

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