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Grad revitalizes salmon runs in the Nisqually River Delta

By Drew Brown

Jeanette Dorner ’94 is restoring 31 acres of pasture on the Nisqually River delta, converting it to its pristine state as a salt marsh estuary. In time, the area will again provide substantial benefits to shore birds and native fish species, including threatened salmon.

Dorner is the salmon recovery program manager for the Nisqually Indian Tribe. Her job is to restore and protect salmon habitat all along the Nisqually River corridor, from Mt. Rainier to Puget Sound. The work is supported by grants, principally from the federal government.

"The river has been a tribal cultural resource for thousands of years," Dorner said. "The tribe has successfully protected its legal right under treaty to fish in the Northwest. Now we are restoring this watershed to ensure that there will be salmon plentiful enough to fish today and in future generations."

Jeanette Dorner ’94, Salmon recovery program manager, and Florian Leischner, a salmon recovery and restoration biologist, survey the project area. The green vegetation to the right is part of the previously existing salt marsh estuary.

Dorner has managed clean-up and natural vegetation restoration projects on the banks of the Nisqually and its tributaries. Her biggest undertaking has been the restoration of a portion of the delta on tribal property, near the confluence of the Nisqually, Red Salmon Creek and the southern end of Puget Sound. The land is adjacent to The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Nisqually Delta Refuge.

Over the past century, the overall area and quality of the natural wetlands at Nisqually has been compromised by the construction of a series of dikes designed to make the land suitable for farming by blocking the ebb and flow of water. The non-native and unnatural habitats that resulted from dike construction have hurt juvenile salmon, migratory birds and other species in the region.

Under Dorner’s supervision, the tribe removed dikes surrounding the project site and filled "borrow ditches" between the dikes and the pasture from which dirt was "borrowed" by farmers to build the dikes. Otherwise the pasture was left unchanged.

With the dikes removed, twice a day at high tide about a foot of water covers the entire area. Sediment from the tidewaters has covered the decaying pasture grasses and created a mudflat. In some places the mudflat will build to the point where natural salt marsh vegetation will begin to grow, eventually returning the land to a salt marsh estuary.

Juvenile salmon are already returning to the area to feed and become acclimated to their new life in saltwater before embarking on their ocean journey. It is a crucial link in restoring to successful salmon runs.

"It’s simple," Dorner said. "Humans needed to get out of the way and let nature take its course to restore the habitat."

Dorner and her team have staked out the mudflat and are watching the area closely during this, the first growing season, to see what kind of vegetation will replace the pasture grasses and how much natural sediment will accumulate.

Dorner has been interested in environmental issues for years and her work in salmon recovery began when she was in graduate school at the University of Washington. She established a council for Muck Creek in Roy, Wash. There volunteers removed weeds and grass from the creek bed and planted trees and native shrubs on the shore. This, in turn allowed salmon to swim upstream again and give Roy its first salmon run in more than 50 years.

"It was very exciting," Dorner said. "At that point, I was hooked.""

Her environmental roots go back further. At PLU, she was a double major in earth sciences and environmental studies. The latter didn’t even exist then—she developed an independent major.

"Interest in the environment really built up when I was in school," said Dorner, whose parents, Celine and Bryan, are both math professors at PLU. "My professors had the knowledge to help me pursue it fully." PLU now offers majors and minors in the subject.

Dorner said she was influenced by professors such as Jill Whitman, professor of geosciences and chair of the Environmental Studies Program, and Sheri Tonn, professor of chemistry, now vice president of finance and operations. They encouraged Dorner to pursue the next step in her journey—a Fulbright Scholarship to India. Dorner’s research had her in Delhi doing a water quality study on the Yamuna River, the main tributary of the Ganges.

In India rivers are holy, and citizens take wilted garlands off statues, put them in the plastic bags and drop them in the river. Dorner thought she was educating citizens by telling them of the environmental hazards of plastic. She later learned that a man made his living collecting and recycling those bags.

"It was a profound moment. I learned how important it is to fully understand a community before trying to make changes to their way of life," Dorner said.

Her relationship with the Nisqually Tribe during graduate school led to a job offer after graduation in 1999. She immediately began working on their estuary restoration project. Dorner now regularly watches juvenile Chinook salmon use the estuary. But this is only phase one, and nature takes decades to make changes.

"It’s exciting, but I realize I will have passed retirement age when we know the ultimate impact of this change," said Dorner, who is expecting her first child in July. "I’m doing this for my grandchildren and future generations."



Dorner and her work:




























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