Editor’s Note: After we published a feature story on the wintering eagle population on the Skagit River this winter, we heard from two people who were involved in early efforts to protect these birds. John Ellingson sent us a note from the East Coast. And local artist and member of our Leadership Council Tony Angell volunteered a story that stretches back to the beginnings of the Conservancy in Washington.
In the late 1960s my friend Frank Richardson and I would take fall trips to the upper Skagit River drainage where we would scout for suitable stone (steatite, marble, alabaster) to carve. We became more and more engaged in the remarkable numbers of bald eagles that were congregating there on the river's shorelines to feed on spawned out salmon. At the time, Frank was also a member of the small group of scientists and conservationists that made up Washington's chapter of The Nature Conservancy. It was certainly Frank who took the message to the chapter that something ought to be done to protect the habitat for what was then a declining number of bald eagles.
I became an elected member of this early chapter of the Conservancy in the early 1970s. By then the members, which included Drs. Victor Scheffer, Louis Messmer and Gordon Alcorn, were all alerted to the possibility of making this habitat preservation project one of the Conservancy’s greatest initiatives. Jon Roush, from the national office, came west to provide council on how we might proceed; Spencer Beebe and Ken Margolis from the Portland offices of the Conservancy also were engaged.
At this time I think John Ellingson, a freelance photographer and conservationist, was key in alerting our national leadership and providing a good deal of energy in getting the press to focus on what the Conservancy was setting out to do. I produced a bald eagle poster, alerting the public to the importance of this species and the Skagit River habitat in particular and John had it printed. We occasionally sold the poster (for $1) as a fundraiser, but more often distributed it to the schools, libraries and community centers where students and the public in general might learn about what opportunities existed to get involved in this effort.
I was serving as state supervisor for environmental education at the time and by 1974-75 many of the schools of Skagit, Whatcom, Snohomish and Island counties were using the eagle poster and endangered species curriculum as part of their instructional programs. Many of the schools raised funds for the Conservancy, earmarked for the Skagit River Bald Eagle habitat protection. These schools scheduled field trips to upper portions of the river where the eagles gathered and some even hosted other schools from the Seattle area to witness and study the feeding birds. Audubon chapters began to schedule their own field trips to the area and the Conservancy began its first series of fall and winter visitations, both in buses and rafting trips. Then too, the commercial rafters began to take an interest in the area and soon the river's surface was active with a wide-eyed public that had never realized that such a phenomenon existed.
During this time, Conservancy members including Jon Roush, Frank Richardson and myself met with some of the timber companies that had holdings along the upper Skagit. We made efforts to acquire some of these critical properties by purchase, exchange or donation. We also met with staff of state and federal agencies that had interests in this region, including the Department of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management and Park Service, as well as other stakeholders. We wanted to begin to coordinate our efforts to preserve the area. We all cooperated and made progress with land purchases, exchanges and designations to protect the area.
These first meetings of such a diverse group of members would become the template for the later formation of the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area committee. Conservancy Land Steward Dr. Fayette Krause coordinated the committee and I chaired those meetings. At the time the discussions with Seattle City Light and the then Puget Power were particularly important, as the former was discussing raising Ross Dam and the latter was proposing a nuclear power plant just above the Skagit. The dam was not raised and the power plant was not constructed, and moreover, both agencies became enthusiastic supporters of protecting the habitat.
By 1976, we and other parties had acquired and protected enough land to dedicate the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area. Gov. Dan Evans hosted the ceremony on Fred Martin's farm. His chief of staff, Ralph Munro, was also an enthusiastic supporter. Their leadership set the foundation for later acquisitions and actions that would follow
Of all the people on that day that I remember, Fred Martin stands out. In his 80s, he had come to this country long before roads, to homestead land at the turn of the century. He remembered the days of wilderness and could measure what had been lost. With his generous donations of land from his holdings, he made possible what has become the "heart" of the preserve. I honestly believe that because of those early efforts on the upper Skagit we are now inclined to view the entire Skagit River system as a living part of the Puget Sound/Salish Sea. What goes on in any part of the drainage affects the integrity of the entire watershed.
Throughout this entire process it's clear that its success has been due to the wide range of committed individuals, from students in the classroom to the particular leadership in our state at the time. It really would not have come to this point had there not been this unified interest and energy on behalf of the eagles and their wintering ground. It's also clear that without the Conservancy and its enlightened and committed staff, the project would have never reached its present level of success. Once the invigorating and inspired days of getting the project started were over, the day-to-day management, stewarding, and coordination necessary to sustain the momentum would not have happened without The Nature Conservancy and its membership. It's an extraordinary legacy we can all be proud of, but never take for granted.
A friend of mine, Steve Faust, in Seattle, recently sent me a clipping from a local paper about the eagles on the Skagit. It got me thinking about the early history of this area and the eagle project.
Back in about 1971, working as a commercial photographer, I was scouting locations and came across the population of wintering eagles on the Skagit River above Rockport. At that time there was a plan to build two nuclear power plants at Sedro-Woolley and I was concerned about the impact the construction would have on one of the finest steelhead rivers in the world. The eagles were the frosting on the cake.
I formed Eagles of the Skagit Foundation (it had one member— me). I hit up my friends and raised about $600 and started knocking on doors. I got a lot of encouragement from many people; some stayed engaged.
Key to the success was the effort of Prof. Frank Richardson, a great ornithologist at the University of Washington. Among those who also played major roles were Ralph Munro, then Secretary of State for Washington; Jim Dolliver, Chief of Staff to Gov. Dan Evans; Rep. Lloyd Meeds, congressman from Skagit County; and senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. I took their advice and my $600 and traveled to Washington D.C. to walk the halls of Congress, the Forest Service, the National Park Service and to talk to anyone who would listen. Everyone was very polite, but no one offered any solution.
Very depressed and simultaneously out of ideas, money and time I headed back to the airport with about an hour to spare. On the way I stopped in Arlington at The Nature Conservancy office and told my story one last time. I met with Jon Roush. The result of that meeting was the first survey of the eagles the next winter by The Nature Conservancy.
In the meantime I had met with Simpson Timber and Fred and Doug Martin (father and son),who with the state, were the major landowners along the river. Along the way I also met with Dorothy Leonard of Conservation Associates in San Francisco, who introduced me to Ansel Adams. All had great advice to offer. Three local Seattle artists, Bill Johnson, James Jerome Hays and Tony Angell, were also very involved.
In the 1970s Gov. Evans dedicated what is now the eagle management area. I guess you know the rest of the story— it was great to see the eagles featured prominently on The Nature Conservancy web page. Over the years I have been concerned that the hatchery upstream from the wintering area would stop contributing fish carcasses that are the primary food source and that popularity of eagle watching would erode the population. Apparently neither has happened.
As I'm sure you know, without The Nature Conservancy, none of this would have happened. It is now nearly 40 years since I first saw the eagles on the Skagit and I can remember counting 61 individuals in a single tree!
This journey created lifelong friendships for me and taught me a lot. I can identify the age of an eagle through a pair of binoculars (up to 6 years old). I learned that bald eagles are so named because of their featherless bald feet, not their white head. But the greatest lesson learned was that a reasoned approach to problem solving can bring those with diverse and even competing interests together to create a solution—that is what The Nature Conservancy does so well and is why they have the stature they do.
I'm delighted to see that The Nature Conservancy and the eagles continue to thrive.February 16, 2011