Dean Kahn

Group that helps salmon reach home finally finds its own home

Elaine McRory and her husband, Mike McRory, water plants at the demonstration garden at the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association’s new base of operations on East Bakerview Road on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.
Elaine McRory and her husband, Mike McRory, water plants at the demonstration garden at the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association’s new base of operations on East Bakerview Road on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

For 25 years, the folks at the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association have labored to improve rivers and streams so salmon can return home to spawning waters that are cold, clear, and flowing.

Now, after a quarter-century of cobbling together space for its offices and equipment, often in different locations, the staff and volunteers at NSEA finally have a home of their own.

Thursday, June 30, marked the end of NSEA’s two-year campaign to raise $1.2 million for a 6.3-acre parcel in north Bellingham that formerly housed a wholesale nursery. All but $105,000 has been raised, and while solicitations for money are ending, talks are ongoing with potential donors, and a dollar-for-dollar match for gifts of up to $50,000 remains in effect through July.

We’ve always engaged the public somewhere other than at NSEA. We can finally invite someone over to our place.

Phelps McIlvaine, chairman, NSEA capital campaign

The association’s new base of operations at 3057 E. Bakerview Road seems custom-made, with a hothouse and open ground for growing streamside plants, space for new storage and equipment buildings, a house that has been remodeled into offices and spare ground to stockpile dirt, mulch and trees with root balls intact, all needed to improve habitat next to and in salmon-bearing waterways.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of the operation, the association’s new home also features a demonstration creekside garden, five large salmon sculpted out of cedar to greet visitors, and work and meeting space needed for an organization with six full-time staffers, four AmeriCorps workers, up to 40 college interns, a slew of community volunteers, and an annual budget of nearly $1 million.

“We’ve always engaged the public somewhere other than at NSEA,” said Phelps McIlvaine, vice president of the association’s board and chairman of the capital campaign. “We can finally invite someone over to our place. It’s a big difference.”

The group is the second of the state’s 14 salmon-enhancement groups with its own property, said Adrian Shulock, development manager. An open house is planned for Sept. 15.

From renters to owners

Supporters started working to improve local salmon habitat in the late 1980s, but NSEA didn’t become a nonprofit until 1991, thus this year’s 25th anniversary. In the early days, meetings were held in people’s homes, with shovels, chainsaws and other rudimentary equipment stored in garages and barns.

In the mid- to late 1990s, they used a small office donated at Bellingham Cold Storage. Equipment was stored in a Westford Funeral Home basement and potted plant starts were kept at a vacant cornfield owned by Meridian School District.

From 1999 to 2013, the group occupied a house and grounds at Hannegan and Bakerview roads that was owned by Western Washington University. On the plus side, the lease was affordable and the association had its offices, plants and equipment in one place. On the downside, the house was cramped, the toilets froze, and the group lost computers, heavy equipment and vehicles to several burglaries.

When Western opted to sell the property, the association began looking for new digs. Todd Jones, the owner of Fourth Corner Nurseries, a short distance away at 3057 E. Bakerview Road, was a fan of the group, so he and his wife, Allison, offered their land and house for a good price, $475,000, with easy terms.

The association began leasing the property in 2013, and Jones gave them extra time to raise money for the purchase.

“He gave us extension after extension,” McIlvaine said. “He wanted to see the transaction go through.”

Room to grow

Improvements and new buildings have risen as money from 256 donors, and counting, came in. The house was remodeled for offices. A new 2,000-square-foot pole building securely shelters the heavy equipment.

The demonstration garden is taking root next to a pond that recycles water into a small creek that winds past the native plantings. Nearby, an open-sided shelter provides covered space for potting plants and other hands-on activities.

This is a way for us to get more organized.

Adrian Shulock, NSEA development manager

Near the hothouse, rows and rows of potted plant starts soak up the sun and rain. The association handles about 15,000 plants a year, including Douglas fir; quick-growing willows; and shrubs, such as thimbleberry and, of course, salmonberry.

Yet to be built is a 1,600-square-foot dual-purpose building that would provide more room for community meetings and storage space for classroom educational materials and testing equipment used by dozens of interns.

“This is a way for us to get more organized,” Shulock said.

With more room for workers, materials and equipment, NSEA is better positioned to expand its operations, Shulock said.

NSEA repairs and replaces culverts to improve salmon access, work that could increase after a recent federal appeals court ruling that Washington must fix salmon-blocking culverts to comply with Indian fishing treaties. Since 1991, NSEA has opened more than 50 miles of stream habitat to salmon by fixing broken culverts or replacing them with bridges, yet 600 stream blockages remain in Whatcom County, Shulock said.

“We’d like to see all of those blockages eventually opened up,” he said.

McIlvaine said there’s plenty of unfinished work because more and more landowners now understand the value of improving streams and creeks for the sake of salmon and the water.

“We’re not really arguing about it anymore,” he said. “There’s more work to do because more people realize it’s a good thing to do.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291.

Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association

Online: www.n-sea.org

Phone: 360-715-0283

Open house: Sept. 15; details to be announced

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