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Conservation Stories: Elie Friedlob

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Elie Friedlob has been a champion for Birch Bay and the Terrell Creek watershed since moving to the area in 2002. Community and partnerships have been the backbone of her work. She is quoted in saying, "One of the bottom lines of my whole message in terms of working with NSEA is the importance of involving the community and how you end up with all kinds of partners that you don't necessarily know at first you're going to end up being partners with." One of the partners she made is the Whatcom Conservation District (Whatcom CD). We have worked alongside Elie during planting parties, Earth Day celebrations, parades, tours and more to bring awareness and action in the Birch Bay area to protect natural resources. Read more about Elie and her efforts through the beautiful article published by Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association.

By Madeline Federici

Every U.S. state has its cultural niche. Oregon loves IPAs, Idaho grows the best potatoes, California will make you a star... and Washingtonians love their salmon. When Elie Friedlob and her husband Alan moved to the Birch Bay area from Atlanta in 2002, like many others, they were enthralled by the beautiful, forested landscapes and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation the state offers.

"When we moved here, it was like discovering a new world because of the gorgeous Northwest woods and the water," Friedlob said. "Then this whole thing with salmon, it was just magical. But at that point, I hadn't even been fully introduced to the magic yet - it was just a conceptual thing to me."

A Chicago native, Friedlob lived an urban lifestyle with limited awareness of environmental issues. Several months after their move, her husband saw an announcement in local paper, The Northern Light, for a community event held by Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) and encouraged her to go.

"To give you a context of who I was at that time, I was a city girl. It was just kind of curiosity," Friedlob said. "By that point, we had lived here a couple of months and were falling in love with the beauty of the area, so it stimulated my particular desire to find out more about salmon restoration because I had no experience with it."

She attended the event as a total novice. Incidentally, it ended up being the first meeting of NSEA's Stream Stewards Program, coordinated by Rachel Vasak, the organization's current executive director.

Rachel Vasak (left) and Elie Friedlob (right) pictured by the first Chum remote site incubator (RSI).   Courtesy of Elie Friedlob
Rachel Vasak (left) and Elie Friedlob (right) pictured by the first Chum remote site incubator (RSI). Courtesy of Elie Friedlob

When Friedlob learned that the organization needed help fundraising to complete riparian area restoration around Terrell Creek, she felt compelled to contribute her knowledge of sales and marketing to the cause.

"To me, it was a good marriage between the need that I was hearing and what I could do in terms of my experience," Friedlob said. "At the time, I thought it was a relatively short-term problem."

Her decision to attend the event that day launched the beginning of her nearly 20 years of participation and collaboration with NSEA.

"What it also kicked off simultaneously was an awareness in relationship with the community because we were new to the area," Friedlob said.

Through that initial linkage with NSEA, relationships and connections transpired that supported many other impactful environmental initiatives, especially in the Terrell Creek watershed.

Terrell Creek stretches about 9 miles through rural, residential, and agricultural areas to connect Terrell Lake to Birch Bay.

In 1999, NSEA conducted a habitat assessment that identified various factors preventing successful salmon spawning and began restoring the watershed to increase salmon populations and improve Terrell Creek fish habitat.

"I credit most of the success we had in the Terrell Creek watershed to Elie's contagious enthusiasm and graceful leadership," said Vasak." I learned so much about community building from her."

Friedlob assisted NSEA in fundraising for donations to help restore Terrell Creek by planning community celebrations, festivals, and parades, getting friends and neighbors involved, and networking with other organizations and local businesses.

"One of the bottom lines of my whole message in terms of working with NSEA is the importance of involving the community and how you end up with all kinds of partners that you don't necessarily know at first you're going to end up being partners with," Friedlob said. "It's essential in any environmental activism or initiative to have as deep of community roots as you can get, and you have to keep working at it."

Elie Friedlob staffing a Chums of Terrell Creek booth at an event

Terrell Creek is well known by the Birch Bay community, so NSEA's programming resonated with that population. Over time, the organization's connections multiplied, deepened, and expanded - and achieved much more than was initially intended.

"There was a multiplier effect in the connection between what we were doing with the salmon restoration and then all of this other community growth and participation in managing the environment here," Friedlob said.

Later in 2003, NSEA collaborated with Chums of Terrell Creek to restore stream habitat and remove fish passage barriers.

"The Chums of Terrell Creek started as a fairly cute idea to restore one of our local riparian areas and bring salmon back, but it ended up doing way more," Friedlob said.

Together, the groups have removed four significant barriers and restored nearly five miles of stream bank habitat. Additionally, they attempted to kickstart a run of Chum that had previously disappeared.

"During the months when salmon returned, water levels were pretty low. There wasn't a lot of surface water to go into it, and there was a dam at the top," Friedlob said. "They devised a solution that would allow Fish and Wildlife to release some water during the fall months and a little bit more water in the stream system so that Chum and Coho could make it upstream."

Shortly afterward, there were sightings of Coho in Lake Terrell, Friedlob said.

As she and her husband continued their various participations, many of the connections they built through NSEA indicated concern about rapid development in their watershed and showed interest in becoming involved with protecting and restoring water resources in Birch Bay.

Subsequently, Friedlob and her husband started a group called Smart Growth Birch Bay, which channeled those collective desires into structured community involvement to address concerns about water quality and aquatic habitat loss from urban development.

Eventually, they also helped form Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resources Management District (BBWARM) in 2007.

"BBWARM was an extremely successful effort. I don't think there's another initiative like it, certainly not in Whatcom County and I think not even in the state," Friedlob said. "The taxes on impervious surfaces were used on projects to improve and maintain the quality of Birch Bay."

That same year, she joined NSEA's board of directors for a brief period. Then, from 2009 to 2011, she advised a second generation of the Chums of Terrell Creek.

In 2014, she retired from her managing consulting career. Moving forward, she plans to serve on NSEA's advisory council, which will help steer the organization's future direction and advise executive decision-making.

"It's a huge issue - the restoration of not just salmon, but our whole environmental predicament on the planet. This couldn't be a more fraught and important period," Friedlob said. "It's exciting to be even nominally part of some effort, but it's a very critical time."

The most important takeaways from her experiences with NSEA so far are the importance of involving the community in environmental restoration initiatives and the value of comprehensive participation to achieve sustained investment.

"This is a time of real challenge for any organization that's interested in bringing environmental improvement. It's a critical period in humankind's history and our environment. We're right at the precipice. For NSEA, that's going to scroll down into local issues, as well as larger environmental ones. But how that will play out transcends just NSEA," Friedlob said. "Every time I'm going down Chuckanut Drive and look at those beautiful Chum working their hard way up that stream, they never give up. It's a good lesson for us. Mother Earth and humankind have all been to the edge multiple times. So, we're there again. I'm hoping we're smart enough to figure ways out of it."

Elie Friedlob (left) and Aneka Sweeney (right), Whatcom CD Education and Outreach Coordinator, standing next to a tree they planted during a Terrell Creek restoration work party.

You can find the original article published by NSEA here.

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