In the first days of November, when the chum salmon return to the south Puget Sound, another massive migration arrives at the mouth of Kennedy Creek. This one, however, arrives in yellow school buses. Tumbling out in galoshes and raincoats, visiting schoolchildren run up the half-mile long Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail, gaping at the spawning chum that return to the stream by the tens of thousands to spawn.
Only ten miles northwest of Olympia, Kennedy Creek is one of the most productive chum salmon spawning streams in all of Washington, with average fall runs topping 30,000 fish. Every November, thousands of visitors, including more than 2,500 local school children, visit the interpretive sites along the trail to witness this incredible spectacle of nature.
In 2016, Western Rivers Conservancy launched an effort to protect the majority of this important stream, which flows 9.5 miles from Summit Lake to Totten Inlet. Although the mouth of Kennedy Creek was already protected within the 203-acre Kennedy Creek Natural Area Preserve, the crucial spawning and rearing habitat upstream of the NAP was not, (leaving this valuable estuary vulnerable due to upstream degradation).
Consequently, WRC set out to create an unbroken assemblage of protected land encompassing all the spawning and rearing habitat within Kennedy Creek. Working with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, we created the 1,007-acre Kennedy Creek Natural Resource Conservation Area to enhance the existing Natural Area Preserve at the mouth. The new Kennedy Creek Natural Area, comprised of both the NAP and the new NRCA, was signed into law in 2016. Our efforts were a critical first step toward conserving all of Kennedy Creek. The new designation will allow the DNR to continue acquiring lands along the river for both resource conservation and environmental education.
Conserving Kennedy Creek is critically important. Chum salmon once returned to Puget Sound by the millions. By the mid-20th century, runs in Kennedy Creek had been reduced to an average of 100 fish a year. Thanks to local recovery and conservation efforts, those numbers have dramatically improved. As DNR adds additional lands into the Kennedy Creek Natural Area, we will help ensure this vital stream is forever protected and these gains are not lost.
Kennedy Creek also supports runs of coho and pink salmon, coastal and resident cutthroat trout and winter steelhead, as well as rich wildlife. Salmon carcasses provide important marine-derived nutrients to the surrounding riparian and estuarine ecosystems, including 120 wildlife species, from northern river otter and bobcat to red-tailed hawk.
The long-term protection of Kennedy Creek will preserve not just a great salmon run, but an entire ecosystem that depends on the health of its fish. We will also ensure that future students can continue to learn the importance of salmon to the Puget Sound and the world, and the interconnection between forest and fish, shorebirds and shellfish.