Skagit County's Fir Island farms and floopdplains, amongst the Cascade Mountains in the background. © Marlin Greene/One Earth Images

Stories in Washington

Salmon Habitat Restoration

What could be better than completing one big salmon-habitat restoration project? Completing three! Then . . . 52!

Plus, kick-starting a regional floodplain program, creating a new partnership alliance between conservation and agriculture and creating a project pipeline for the next generation of restoration projects. 

The Nature Conservancy in Washington accomplished all this in just five years in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through a grant that wrapped up in December 2018. The grant award, “Accelerating Puget Sound Habitat Restoration Through Coordinated Investment,” represented a dramatic shift in approach.


The idea arose from a mix of reflection and forward-thinking. “We had just finished the Port Susan Bay and Fisher Slough restoration projects, which NOAA also supported, and took seven to ten years each,” said Kat Morgan, the Conservancy’s Associate Director of Puget Sound Conservation. “We wanted to make these projects go faster.”

farms and floopdplains, amongst the Cascade Mountains in the background.
Skagit County's Fir Island farms and floopdplains, amongst the Cascade Mountains in the background. © Marlin Greene/One Earth Images

River floodplains and estuaries are some of the most productive natural systems on the planet, yet 75 percent of their habitat has been lost in Puget Sound. The Fisher Slough restoration project, for example, restored 60 acres of habitat, which is a large project. However, more than 1,000 more acres is needed to recover salmon in that watershed.  And we must find a way to accomplish this restoration in a way that works for the communities living, working and playing in these spaces. With the urgency of climate change layered on, there is keen pressure to increase the pace and scale of these projects.

The vision: Instead of boots-on-the-ground focused on individual projects led by TNC, we would coordinate partnerships, investments, community and technical expertise, helping to empower communities in leading a suite of multi-benefit projects. “It’s a little like the role a producer has in a movie,” explained Kat. “It’s behind the scenes, removing barriers, finding funding and offering technical expertise.”


The Coordinated Investment grant proposal — for multi-year, multi-benefit, multi-project and multi-partnership funding — was delivered to NOAA in February 2013. Kat applauds NOAA for awarding the nearly $4 million body of work. “NOAA went out on a limb,” she said. Polly Hicks, Senior Planning and Evaluation Coordinator at NOAA, was the agency’s Washington lead for the grant. “It was definitely different, and a risk in some ways,” said Polly. “But a risk we wanted to try.”

Polly added that NOAA had already recognized the advantages of this broader approach. Multiple coordinated projects address restoration in a more comprehensive way. “The sum is greater than the parts.”


Once the grant was awarded, TNC’s restoration manager Jenny Baker (who now works for the state) worked with the sub-grantees. “This was a whole different role for TNC,” Jenny said. “We went from managing single projects to being able to advocate for all these projects. We were able to share our knowledge a bit more.”

TNC’s role in the Coordinated Investment grant may seem less visible as compared to hands-on field work, but the results are unmistakable. The grant initially focused on three Puget Sound salmon-habitat restoration projects led by partners:

  • Fir Island Farm: Sub-grantee Department of Fish and Wildlife restored 131 acres of estuary, nurturing up to 65,000 chinook smolts annually.

  • Leque Island: Partner Ducks Unlimited completed designs and raised public support to restore nearly 300 acres of former salt marsh at this island west of Stanwood.

  • Upper Carlson Floodplain: Partner King County set back 1,600 feet of dike along the Snoqualmie River near Fall City, creating flood-protection structures for landowners and reconnecting the river with 50 acres of forest.

Jenny and other staff worked with NOAA to provide technical support on at least 4 addition projects in Hood Canal and on the Skagit and Snohomish Rivers, where partners were testing new approaches to designing projects with community coalitions.   

TNC also used the grant to build up the brand-new Floodplains by Design program, a network of partners with a dedicated funding stream for managing floodplains for people, habitat and agriculture. Today there are 35 floodplain projects now complete or in the pipeline. In addition, grant funds were used to form the Alliance for Puget Sound Natural Resources, a collaboration between agricultural and conservation communities, which secured $9M in Farm Bill funds for at least nine more conservation projects on private farmland.


Kat Morgan believes the TNC’s new approach is the wave of the future. “When I look back, I think this grant really represented a pivotal point for TNC, from leading one or two projects to finding a role that helps us have more impact at a bigger scale in Puget Sound,” she said.

Polly Hicks, at NOAA, agrees. She also emphasized that the ability of both NOAA and TNC to contribute technical resources was a big factor in the program’s success. And, she added, the project pipeline, which gives the grant impact far into the future, meshes well with NOAA’s vision and goals. “The proof of concept worked.” 

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