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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Salmon's Best Friend

Air Date: Week of

It seems like an impossible challenge: rehabilitate a despoiled creek in one of Seattle's poorest neighborhoods so that salmon can someday rebound. But one man is battling against the odds in a personal crusade to save his neighborhood creek. Reporter Ingrid Lobet profiles salmon savior John Beale.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. While government officials debate if dams should be demolished and urban growth curtailed to save the wild Pacific salmon, there's a gentleman in one of Seattle's poorest neighborhoods who's turned salmon preservation into a personal crusade. His battleground seems like a hopeless place for success, but he has found ways to help salmon bounce back in the city's most polluted stream. Reporter Ingrid Lobet brings us the story of the irrepressible John Beal.

(Keys jangle; a car door slams. A motor revs up.)

LOBET: Three hundred and sixty five mornings a year, John Beal climbs into his Ford Bronco and rolls out to check on his creek. Hamm Creek. He drives across his neighborhood, the most industrial part of Seattle, to a startling four-acre patch of new green.


LOBET: He's there before the end of his second smoke.

(Door car shuts)

BEAL: I'm actually trying to cut down. I really am. From four packs to two.

(Chain links clank)

LOBET: Mr. Beal opens a gate and follows a gravel path down through a dense patch of cottonwood and alder saplings. None of this was here five years ago. No pond, no cattails, no red-winged blackbirds. Instead, there was a turn of the century sewage plant and cracked pavement.


LOBET: Mr. Beal winces as he bends his tall frame toward the water. He's got injuries from a tour in Vietnam in the Marines, and his old hobby, racing hydroplanes. Then he smiles as he spots a half-dozen small salmon shimmying against the current.

(Water splashes)

BEAL: There are some of my babies there. See them?

LOBET: Twenty years ago only a handful of old-timers remembered there even was a creek here. Few of the truck drivers or paint plant workers passing by noticed the roadside ditch, black with oil and solvents. It flowed past scrap yards and machine shops, past a few modest homes, including John and Lana Beal's. Then under the highway. For much of its course, this so-called stream wasn't even on the surface, but channeled underground like a sewer. Hamm Creek was the most fouled tributary of Seattle's most troubled river. But for John Beal it was also part of his neighborhood, and his doctor had told him his health could depend in part on finding a hobby.

BEAL: This is where the day I lived, the last doctor that I had been interviewed by, told me that I only had about four or five months to live. And it was right at this place where this pond is, that there was a Kelvinator refrigerator that had gone. It was into sediment about half deep. And I grabbed a shovel from home, came out here, and started digging it out of the stream.

LOBET: John Beal soon developed an uncommon devotion to his filthy, fractured neighborhood stream. What started as a shovel in the muck eventually became a full-time job supported by donations. He doesn't talk about it much, but if you ask him, John will tell you he's a Catholic and Hamm Creek is his calling.

BEAL: This is a mission from God. He gave it to me, 100 percent, woke me up at 2 o'clock in the morning and said, "This is what you're going to do." And I said, "You're out of your mind." And there was a deal struck: I do it, I stay alive.

LOBET: Mr. Beal says Hamm Creek has kept him alive. But early on he wasn't sure he was holding up his end of the bargain.

BEAL: After a year of doing that, of digging this garbage out and removing it, I had never run across anything alive. No crawdads, not even worms. I'd been around waters as a youngster and thought, in any live water you're bound to find bugs or something. And there just wasn't anything here.

LOBET: But eventually his efforts began to pay off. John Beal made friends at the local water quality lab, and they helped him identify the culprits who were dumping solvents and oil into the creek. Over the years he has worked with regulators to shut down several repeat violators. He even invented an absorbent boom to help strain contaminants out of the creek.

(Flowing water)

LOBET: Slowly, Hamm Creek was becoming clean, but it still wasn't alive. John had enlisted growing fleets of grade schoolers to introduce salmon fry into the creek, but the young fish didn't live long. He realized they didn't have enough food.

BEAL: It was by going to the Green River above the gorge, and actually diving in the water with a snorkel and observing wild Cohoe and what they would eat. And it was interesting. The second day, being very still in the water, they got curious, eventually, and came swimming right up underneath me, and I actually was able to watch a couple dive right underneath me and go to a larva on a rock, pluck it off and eat it.

LOBET: Mr. Beal discovered something he hadn't been able to find in books. The fingerlings wanted fly larvae, which live on slimy rocks. He began stocking Hamm Creek with live rocks from cleaner streams nearby.

BEAL: This has got -- whoo, there's a larva right there. I think that's probably the mayfly. There's a periwinkle, you can see it quite clearly. Looks -- not sure what that one is.

LOBET: Mr. Beal's expertise is entirely self-taught. And in his exploration of stream ecology, he eventually found he had to look beyond Hamm Creek to the river it flows into. Salmon have to travel through the Duwamish River to reach Hamm Creek to spawn. The river used to be home to mighty salmon runs, but as Seattle industrialized, the Duwamish was diked, dredged, and straightened, its sides reinforced with concrete. Ninety-eight percent of the fish habitat was lost.

(A boat motor runs)

CUMMINGS: (To Beal) Can you give me a little shove off the bow, John?

BEAL: Yeah, let's head upriver first. What kind of an out-drive you got on this thing?

LOBET: Often, John Beal goes out on a boat with B.J. Cummings, an ecologist whose job it is to look out for the Duwamish and the rest of Puget Sound. The Duwamish is among the Pacific Northwest's most altered waterways. It's the artery for Seattle's international barge traffic. It's the water frontage for Boeing. It was the home of all the city's early concrete production.

(Boat motor continues)

LOBET: Today, at an extreme low tide, John's offered to help B.J. spot hidden waste pipes that may still be draining chemicals into the river.

BEAL: See this rock outcropping that looks fairly normal? Well, this is where the outfall is. There's two of them. And when the tide drops, you can absolutely see that they had built it like they built a rockery. There are two pipes, one on the bottom of each one of these. And it is a mess. It was black.

CUMMINGS: This is the one you said was black.


CUMMINGS: Kind of black, green, a blue, and an oil, right? Okay.

LOBET: B.J. resolves to come back the next day in her kayak to take samples directly from the sewer pipes. John makes it clear he'll be there, too. John Beal is everywhere. He's an amiable guy, but he's also relentless. When local environmental officials open their offices on Monday morning, it's not unusual for them to hear first thing the voice of John Beal.

BEAL: (On phone answering machine) Okay, this is John Beal. Just got a report that yesterday at noon Burlington Northern and/or a contract crew was steam-cleaning and sandblasting the railroad bridge into the Duwamish. I just went down on the boat. It's now Sunday, low tide. There is rust all over the place...

LOBET: Some local officials find John Beal to be a major pain in the neck, a fanatic even. But they won't say so on tape. Some ridicule him, some fear him, and some say he doesn't always get the details right. George Blumberg, a biologist at the port of Seattle, remembers a time Mr. Beal threw a monkey wrench into a river restoration project that Mr. Beal himself supported, after excavators turned up a single piece of charred wood. Mr. Beal alerted a local Indian tribe that a previously unknown settlement had been unearthed.

BLUMBERG: That's a dramatic way to, by my lights, to perhaps misinterpret what we'd just seen, and perhaps even to raise a very important and significant question in the absence of additional information. And that's sort of a demonstration of how excitable Mr. Beal can be.

LOBET: It turned out there was no buried Indian site, but the false alarm caused a delay in a project. Still, Mr. Blumberg says he admires John Beal's determination and his dedication to a watershed others have written off.

BLUMBERG: A lot of folks would say, why spend the time on it? You know, it's lost. If I had a dollar to spend on fish and wildlife habitat restoration, it ought to be spent elsewhere, not on the Duwamish. But a guy like John Beal would say any effort we make here is going to be beneficial.

LOBET: And John Beal's passion for the Duwamish River and Hamm Creek is contagious. Over the years he's inspired hundreds of school children and youth with his warm and engaging style. They've helped him plant 750,000 trees during special work days, like this one.

BEAL: What is this tool called?

DEVON: Pickmatic.

BEAL: Pickmatic, woo-hoo! What is your name?

DEVON: Devon.

BEAL: Devon, you're on top of it. What is this used for? Digging through hard soil, yeah...

LOBET: Today the crew is 50 youths from different parts of the country. They're with the National Service Corps known as City Year. John is doing less of the physical work himself these days, and delegating what he can to crew leaders.

BEAL: With the Pickmatic you don't want to go really over your waist. You want to go down here. (Digs) And keep it low.

LOBET: The kids are transplanting native cottonwoods and alders to the streamside. The trees will stabilize soils and keep the creek cool and shaded, a necessity for fish. John Beal encourages the kids to see the spirituality in tree planting.

BEAL: For years, at Hamm Creek, every tree that I have planted has had a name. And more and more, I can't explain the science of it, but I can tell you that trees that have a name have a better chance at mortality than those that don't.

(Ambient voices. A woman calls: "James, come back and kiss this tree!")

BEAL: Name it before you plant it. Name it. Name it. Get your foot off.

WOMAN: Okay. This one will be -- Devon! What's the dude's name that died when we came back? Glenn. This is Glenn.

LOBET: Glenn, the sapling, is taking root next to the once dead stream, a stream which one biologist now says supports, quote, "a surprising density of organisms." Mr. Beal believes that through this model of taking responsibility for streams and knowing them intimately through daily visits, individuals can bring back the most broken of landscapes. John Beal says he can't count the number of people who said this could never happen.


LOBET: Invariably, when John returns home in the evening after his river rounds, there's one more task waiting for him -- a wing to mend or a mouth to feed. He's trying to repopulate the growing green spaces along Hamm Creek with onetime residents like heron and beaver. Today, an orphaned baby robin needs to be fed.

(Chirping. Beal: "Here you go.")

LOBET: It's an act of sustenance and revival. And like all his work on Hamm Creek, one which sustains him as well.

(Chirping. Beal: "Good boy. One more. Then you're done." Chirping)

LOBET: For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Seattle.



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