By Paul Dunn
Like the migrating coho salmon for which he advocates, Jarred Figlar-Barnes periodically struggles against the current. But he never stops swimming.
That’s just not the 20-year-old Elma resident’s style.
Instead, the Evergreen State College (TESC) junior and part-time state Department of Transportation technician fights against sometimes long odds to restore a watershed that has thrilled him since 2009 when he was just a small fry in middle school. To date, he has volunteered more than 3,000 hours to the endeavor — labors of love, he would say.
He is, to put it mildly, a McDonald Creek Watershed dynamo — that’s where most of his restoration activities take place. The crown jewel of the 1,307-acre watershed — 5.61-mile-long McDonald Creek — is a mere breaststroke from the modest Elma home he shares with his environmentally conscious parents Kim and Ron Figlar-Barnes who instilled in him an awe for all that is the Pacific Northwest.
“I deeply care about nature and the environment, and making sure it thrives is the right thing to do,” Figlar-Barnes says. “When you help the environment, you help people, too. It’s a win win.”
Before his boots actually hit the ground, the then 11-year-old began contemplating in 2008 how he could help restore McDonald Creek. The waterway had once been a thriving spawning ground for coho salmon, but no longer. The 16-to-27-inch, hook-nosed species hadn’t inhabited the creek since 2000 and in some areas of the watershed for much longer than that.
That didn’t sit well with the kid, so he got to work — though he knew his chances for success might be slim.
After biking around the watershed in 2009, he began making contacts through the Grays Harbor Stream Team/Chehalis Basin Partnership and convinced those partners to include McDonald Creek as one of their official projects.
After devising a three-phased plan, Figlar-Barnes and his team began contacting landowners along the creek where restoration would most benefit salmon habitat.
A few months later, the Chehalis Basin Fisheries Task Force (CBFTF) agreed to sponsor the McDonald Creek project, and Figlar-Barnes simultaneously began working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It didn’t take long for the Elma lad to impress CBFTF Project Consultant Lonnie Crumley.
“Jarred is persistent and has no fear about contacting people and working with them to join in on his goal to restore coho to McDonald Creek,” Crumley says. “He is articulate for such a young guy and very knowledgeable beyond his age about how to restore a stream. ‘Can’t’ isn’t in his mindset, which is refreshing. We need more like him.”
Can’t certainly wasn’t on Figlar-Barnes’ mind in fall 2010 when he and his partners planted two runs of coho salmon in McDonald Creek — 40 total fish — and crossed their fingers the fish would survive.
Soon after, things began to happen.
In 2011, the state Department of Ecology awarded the fisheries task force $15,000 to retrofit a culvert that had prevented fish from migrating during low-water flows, and Mark Reed Hospital in Elma began constructing a 1,400-foot stream channel on property it acquired along the creek — in the process eliminating what had been eight fish barriers.
Other projects took shape about the same time, which included planting trees and other retrofitting along the creek.
Shortly after in 2011, Figlar-Barnes and crew planted 20 pairs of spawning salmon in the creek and began working with a local property owner to replace a private-access road culvert with a 40-foot modular bridge to allow free coho migration. The project was completed in 2012.
In the fall of that year, crews planted 20 more pair of spawning salmon — their third and final plant. Follow-up surveys after all three plants revealed healthy spawning nests — called “redds” — along the creek, which in turn birthed significant numbers of salmon fry. But at that point no adult cohos had returned to the creek following their migration to the ocean.
If their 2010 fish plants and restoration had been successful, Figlar-Barnes and his colleagues expected to see the first adult cohos return to the creek in fall 2013.
Dry weather and historically low rivers and streams may have contributed to the failure that year, Figlar-Barnes believes.
But then in winter 2014, something happened that Figlar-Barnes would remember for the rest of his life: Eleven adult coho returned home — for the first time in at least 14 years. Hundreds more coho fry arrived in their wake some months later. For Figlar-Barnes, the work had paid off.
“It was amazing,” he says. “I was very, very happy. It was very intense, exciting and joyful.”
That joy spread this fall when he noticed more adult coho in the creek, and in just the past few weeks hundreds more coho fry.
But Figlar-Barnes’ jubilation over that success is tempered by work still to be done — and obstacles in his path.
His latest project aims to replace fish migration barriers — including a local railroad culvert crossing — along a stretch of McDonald Creek particularly crucial for fish migration. But he hasn’t yet been able to persuade all landowners along the stretch of creek that it’s in their best interest to remove fish barriers.
So he’s biding his time, refining his plans, and recruiting environmental allies.
Elma Public Works Director Jim Starks is among those Figlar-Barnes has enlisted. Over about six years, the two have discussed Elma projects ranging from storm drainage/treatment and stream restoration to transportation and infrastructure. Along the way, Figlar-Barnes has impressed Starks in a variety of ways — some obvious, some not so.
The young man’s intelligence, for instance, is striking, Starks says, but it’s another of Figlar-Barnes’ traits that equally impresses him.
“When you speak with him, his intelligence becomes very apparent; what isn’t at first apparent is his ‘bulldog’ nature that accompanies it,” Starks explains. “By that, I am speaking to his ability to foresee a certain desired outcome and slowly and steadily promote an idea with stakeholders and funding groups that may be able to help bring his vision to fruition.”
As he grapples with the final piece of the McDonald Creek puzzle, Figlar-Barnes keeps his future well in sight. He’s pursuing an environmental science degree at TESC and considering a master’s degree in civil engineering following that. Regardless of his goals, though, he doesn’t intend to stray far from Grays Harbor County.
“We have a lot of environmental, social and economic issues here, and I want to solve them,” he says. “And at some point I might run for political office.”
Like we said, the young man just keeps on churning — much like his beloved cohos.
To learn how you can be involved in salmon recovery, visit the Chehalis Basin Lead Entity website: www.chehalisleadentity.org.