Published on June 2, 2014 in the Marin Independent Journal.

Coho salmon are an incredibly unique species. They begin their lives in California’s freshwater streams, mature in the Pacific Ocean, and then return to their natal creeks to spawn and finally die. They once flooded streams and sent fishers home with millions of fish each season, but today California’s streams no longer support these iconic wild fish.

Turtle Island Restoration Network’s Habitat and Homes Project aims to change that dynamic.

It is not a mystery why so few California streams still support coho salmon. Human-caused modifications to the natural environment ranging from dam building to housing to logging have chipped away at the species’ chances of survival.

Coho salmon thrive in creeks surrounded by trees. A rich forest ecosystem provides the ingredients salmon need to survive: shade, food, shelter and cold, clean water. When too many creekside forests are replaced with roads, buildings and failing septic systems, the local populations of coho salmon disappear.

Coho salmon have faced increasing urbanization and have been federally listed as threatened or endangered since 1996. However, one of the few places where the coho salmon remain and have a reasonable chance at recovery is in the Lagunitas watershed. They have survived here primarily because much of the watershed is protected in parklands.

Yet, even here, the species is barely hanging on. The primary headwaters, coho’s preferred spawning and nursery grounds, lie in the San Geronimo Valley, where the impacts of creekside development have degraded habitat. The resulting habitat and water quality issues reverberate downstream, reducing the value of our parklands to support endangered species.

Can humans and wild coho salmon both thrive and cohabitate in the San Geronimo Valley?

The answer is yes, but only if we set common-sense limits on future development, as well as work to repair our past mistakes by improving creekside habitat and water quality with restoration work. Turtle Island Restoration Network’s Habitat and Homes Project proposal seeks to purchase and repair existing creekside parcels along this important endangered salmon stream to restore coho salmon habitats, maintain modest-sized affordable homes and restore a streamside forested buffer.

Once improved, the homes are then returned to the market for sale with permanent covenants that protect environmental and community values. This can be accomplished by:

• Creating permanent conservation easements on property deeds to help preserve salmon-friendly habitat improvements.

• Landscaping homes with native trees to create a carbon-sequestering forest buffer.

• Keeping house sizes modest.

• Making the houses affordable in perpetuity using community land trust tools.

This project aims to bring together diverse interests and sources of funding from supporters of affordable housing, habitat restoration, endangered species protection, and those working to address climate change. This is a long-term (25-50 year) project that can buy homes as they are voluntarily placed on the market. No “property rights” will be violated and future owners will understand the restrictions and responsibilities of purchasing one of these affordable creekside homes.

While this is a long-term plan, it can grow one house at a time. And it must if we want to give coho a fighting chance of survival and create affordable options for the next generation.

I invite all interested organizations and individuals to contact me and join us in this unique endeavor of saving an iconic species in Marin and creating a blue-green vision for the future. Decades down the road, if we are successful, our children and grandchildren will thank us.

Todd Steiner, executive director of Forest Knolls-based Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network.

Published as op-ed in the Marin Independent Journal, at