ROCKPORT — After a half-dozen years of trying, Skagit County’s Illabot Creek is a pen-stroke away from being designated a Wild and Scenic River.

Congress passed a National Defense Authorization Act Friday that includes the designation. All that remains is President Obama’s signature.

The designation has been a goal for conservation groups, local and state officials for many years, but efforts to pass it as separate legislation have previously failed. This time, it was added to the $585 billion Defense bill.

“It’s super, super exciting for those of us involved in all things Skagit River that this is going through,” said The Nature Conservancy’s Bob Carey, director of strategic partnerships. He lives in Mount Vernon and has been involved in Illabot Creek conservation efforts since 1998.

He said conservation goals for the Illabot go back two decades before then, when the Skagit River bald eagle population was at its lowest. And the fish activity in the stream goes back even further, finding a place in the stories of the Skagit Valley’s Native American tribes.

“One of the reasons that so interests me in Illabot Creek is having spent time on it and seeing that it’s one of the few places in the state that you can still really see what the old-timers meant when they would say they could once walk across the backs of salmon,” Carey said.

Illabot Creek starts in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest at 7,500 feet. It connects with the Skagit River between Rockport and Marblemount at 500 feet above sea level, and along the way it provides critical habitat for threatened fish species and other wildlife.

“It’s basically home to every species of salmon and salmonids in the Skagit Basin,” state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Brett Barkdull said. “It gets a lot of use by bull trout and steelhead, chums, pink salmon, coho, Chinook and the whole works, basically.”

The Illabot offers stable spawning habitat and gets some of the highest-density returns of a wide variety of fish species.

“One of the reasons that fisheries folks were so interested in supporting this designation in the first place is because there really isn’t any place that has the variety of spawning and the kinds of numbers that we see in Illabot,” Barkdull said. “It’s kind of the shiny little star in the Skagit Basin as far as fish production goes.”

Becoming a recognized wild and scenic river will prevent construction of dams or other structures that would impair the free-flowing nature of the creek.

“We’re thrilled about it. This has been a long time coming,” Skagit Land Trust Executive Director Molly Doran said. “A lot of partners have been working on this for years, so it’s great to see it coming together.”

The Nature Conservancy and The Wilderness Society said Illabot Creek is an important piece of the greater Skagit River watershed, which has been recognized as a Wild and Scenic River since 1978.

While the wild and scenic designation has gained local, state and national support over the years, the stream has been a focus for local restoration projects, as well.

On the same day Congress moved the defense bill forward, the Skagit Land Trust finalized a $100,000 conservation easement on a 100-acre property adjacent to Illabot Creek.

In September, the Skagit Land Trust and Skagit River System Cooperative each received grant money from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board for projects that would benefit fish in the watershed.

Cooperative Restoration Director Steve Hinton said the latest congressional action is good news.

“It’s been a watershed that’s had a lot of attention over the years in how it’s been one of the more functioning and intact watersheds, so certainly the wild and scenic designation is merited,” he said.

Using a $1.1 million grant from the state, the cooperative is building two bridges and removing 850 feet of dike to restore natural sediment deposits that contribute to the creek’s alluvial fan. Hinton said the project is focused on the stretch of Illabot Creek along Rockport-Cascade Road.

The proposal to designate Illabot first made its way to Congress when U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and Sen. Patty Murray introduced a bill in 2009.

Larsen joined local officials in August that year to tour the stream. County Commissioner Sharon Dillon says the experience was memorable.

“We saw the fish, but you could also see there were deer and elk. I didn’t see — thank goodness — a bear or wolf or coyote, but you could see evidence that they had been there,” she said. “I thought it was an awesome idea, and then after I saw the area I thought, ‘OK, this is a great place to protect to keep the area pristine.’ ”

The bill didn’t pass Congress in 2009 or in 2011.

This time, Illabot Creek made its way into the national defense bill as one of several unrelated public lands measures. Joining Murray and Larsen, Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep Suzan DelBene supported its passage.

“It took three separate tries over six years, but with perseverance and many dedicated local partners, Illabot Creek will remain wild and scenic for generations to come,” Larsen said in an email Monday. “When we preserve open spaces like Illabot Creek, we protect salmon spawning waters that support healthy fish populations. We protect the clean and free-flowing waters that join the Skagit River.”

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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