When Rachel Vasak started working for the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association in 1996, the small crew operated out of living rooms and donated office space.
She was a geology student at Western Washington University at the time, and quickly landed an internship with NSEA, which has helped restore the area's natural creeks and salmon runs since 1990.
Now at a permanent office off of Hannegan Road, NSEA continues to provide restoration services to Whatcom County. Because the association is not a regulatory body, the staff works with landowners who volunteer to have creeks on their land restored, enabling NSEA to find solutions that help both the landowner and the salmon, Vasak says.
Some of the association's more common projects include restoring creeks by planting native species and placing large woody debris, such as logs and branches, along the shorelines. The volunteers also replace culverts with bridges to increase water flow under roadways and fields.
Vasak, 39, is now the executive director of the association, which is consistently at the top of the list for volunteerism for Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups in the state. In 2011, "13,818 total hours were contributed by volunteers, students, and community members participating in restoration work, education programs, community outreach, and service learning," according to NSEA's annual report.
During the fiscal year July 2010 to June 2011, NSEA volunteers put in a whopping 32,857 hours, more than any of the other 13 enhancement groups in the state, according to a Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife annual report.
What's their secret? NSEA's volunteer hours come from a variety of projects, which change from year to year, Vasak says.
Sometimes NSEA hosts community volunteer days where 100 people come out and work for three hours, donating a total of 300 hours. But NSEA also frequently gets student volunteers from Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, and each of those students may donate 300 hours over the period of an academic year.
"Each time somebody comes out, the focus is on giving them a meaningful volunteer experience and helping improve the habitat," Vasak says. "But we also include a little education about why this is so important. For many students, this is a way to get a hands-on experience to add to their classroom instruction."
NSEA received a 2012 Puget Sound Champion award from the Puget Sound Partnership, for exceptional work in restoring habitats and educating the community.
The association has been able to document its success: not only has the crew helped improve life for local landowners, but volunteers have also documented the presence of all five Pacific salmon species in the Nooksack River Basin. That's significant, because sockeye salmon are only usually found in water systems that include large lakes.
"Many people that know something about salmon would believe there are not sockeye in this system," Vasak says. "There are a few sockeye that are kind of unique in our water system that have adapted to use just the river system without that lake component."
One of the first projects Vasak ever worked on with NSEA involved measuring the capacity of a culvert at Landingstrip Creek on the South Fork of the Nooksack River. She remembers counting salmon in the water leading up to a small culvert, but discovering almost no fish were actually able to make it through to the other side of the culvert, which ran for half a mile underneath a field.
In 2011, NSEA was finally able to restore that same creek by removing the culvert, placing native plants near the shore, and placing woody debris in the water to create resting places for salmon swimming out to sea.
"Within two weeks of doing that, we had a dozen coho come back to that channel to spawn," Vasak says.
For Vasak, seeing changes in the river basin and restoring wild salmon runs on a human timescale is both rewarding and necessary.
"We want to make sure those wild fish runs are sustainable, so my child, and maybe grandchildren, and the future generations in our community will have these wild salmon as part of their culture, not part of their history." The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for someone we should salute next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.