by Sharon Morse

It doesn’t look like much. A big dirt parking lot filled with boat trailers. Then the magic starts.

This is the tenth year for Tsalila (sa-Lee-la), the celebration of salmon and the Umpqua River in southern Oregon. Over 60,000 people have participated in this hands-on learning experience. Thinking about doing a large educational event in your area? Here’s how we have grown Tsalila.

Step One: What Does Success Look Like?

Why do you want to put on a festival or major event? What do you hope to accomplish with it?

Our mission for Tsalila is to provide educational experiences that share an appreciation of salmon, the watersheds in which we live, and our cultural heritage, while contributing to the economic viability of the lower Umpqua River Basin. Using this as our building block, we started planning around it.

Step Two: More is better

Identify the resources in your area and invite them to get together and start talking.

Like other salmon festivals in the Pacific Northwest, the work of Tsalila is done through a partnership. None of the agencies, school districts or organizations could do it by themselves, yet all saw how a large program like Tsalila was a benefit to them and the public they serve.

fin-1The Tsalila Partnership includes the local school district (which contributes older students to help teach younger students), city government (which provides maintenance crews, the location, etc.), as well as the chambers of commerce (which help with advertising and purchasing). The Forest Service has been a big supporter of salmon festivals, and they contribute a fisheries person to the team (our main coordinator, handles the on-site logistics). The Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians set up a tribal village and do learning stations. The Bureau of Land Management team member helps with scheduling schools and other logistics. A near by museum, the Umpqua Discovery Center, provides meeting space and a location for the festival.

Every partner brings whatever they have to share to the table. It may be as simple as garbage cans to volunteers to getting grant money. The Partnership meets once a month for most of the year, and then bi-weekly as summer arrives, then every week right before the big event. Challenges and hurdles are brought up for discussion – What are we going to do about bees? Where do we locate the first aid station? Does anyone remember where we stored the signs? – and we figure things out as a group.

Step Three: There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunchpioneer-living-washing-clothes

Once you have identified what you already have available and have selected a location, start building a budget of what it will cost you to put on the event.

The budget for Tsalila is currently around $55,000; it was much smaller to start with, and has grown over the years as the event has grown. The bulk of the funding comes from Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management grants. Other funding comes from the chambers of commerce, donations and sale of T-shirts and salmon dinners. The funding is used to rent tents, Port-A-Potties, story tellers and special traveling displays, and to buy things like straw bales, event insurance, bark dust, and newspaper ads.

All of the partners contribute things in kind, which is essential for grant writing and for getting work done on the ground. This includes things such as electricity, staff, gravel, security, exhibits, storage space, a stage, sound equipment, etc. that are so necessary.

It was hoped that within five years, Tsalila would be self-sustaining and not needing any more government support, but that has not been the case and is something that the Partnership is working on. We are always looking for ‘spawnsors’ and outside grants.

It has been very helpful to have a non-profit organization, OCEAN, be our overall partner. This allows us to apply for grants that aren’t open to agencies.

Step Four: Who Is Going to do All This Work?

Look at all things that you would like to offer at your event, and think about where you are going to get the labor force.

We have about 150 volunteers a day helping with Tsalila, which includes three Education Days and the weekend Festival; we consider anyone who is not a part of the Partnership planning committee to be a volunteer. Most of these people are from agencies and organizations that bring hands-on learning stations or informational displays. The rest are recruited from each of the partners, the high school, retired school teachers and local civic groups such as Rotary.

We provide each volunteer with a T-shirt, some training, and an appreciation dinner to thank them for all that they contribute, which can be helping to put up the maze, hanging signs, teaching learning stations, giving guided tours, etc.

Step Five: Invite People and They Will Come

Are you going to use posters, television interviews, news paper ad, street banners, web sites or a combination of all these things to bring people to your event?

Over the years, we have tried all kinds of things to bring people to the festival (schools are invited to attend the Education Days). We have varied our strategy according to what other events we may be competing against, what we can afford, and what some of our simple surveys have told us. Attendance has increased each year (well, except for when it rained and rained) and so has what we offer to entice the public.

Step Six: How Do We Want to Do it Better Next Time?

How do you know if you have reached success? Think about how you want to evaluate your event.

Grant givers would like to know that investing money in your event was a good thing, and may even consider doing it again. Evaluations of different kinds can help with grants, as well as planning for the next year.

We vary how we do evaluations and what we evaluate at Tsalila, depending on our needs and where we want to focus our attention. We usually do a written evaluation for the teachers about what their students got out of coming to Education Days, and sometimes we ask the students as well. We track the number of people attending, and where they are coming from to see how our media strategy is working. We do simple surveys to ask people their opinions about the event, and we ask the volunteers as well.

Shortly after our event is over and we have cleaned up, our first meeting agenda will include setting a date for next year and going over a summary of the evaluations to help us get started on our planning.

Step Seven: In Closing…..

It doesn’t look like much. A big dirt parking filled with boat trailers.

In late September, large trucks arrive and tents start going up: 4 large ones to hold the majority of the learning stations, others for the salmon dinners and the ‘edutainment’ area. The salmon story telling tent (shaped like a bright colorful fish) goes up. Another crew works on getting the salmon life cycle maze in place. Signs are hung, tables and equipment are brought in for the learning stations – a giant fish tank, the river box, the hybrid car. A pit is dug for the alder wood fire for cooking the salmon.

From Wednesday through Friday,  almost 3,000 students, teachers and chaparones will be on-site for the Education Days. Busses line up and students pile out, greeters arrive to help direct them to their first station. Noise, laughing, dust and excitement fill the air.

Once the last group is gone on Friday afternoon, volunteers take a break for an appreciation barbeque. Then stations are adjusted and moved, vendors come in to set up, more signs are hung, and we get ready for the festival.

The festival is on the Saturday and Sunday beginning with a children’s parade and an opening ceremony that includes a tribal blessing. Thousands of people of all ages will go through the Discovery Center, try paddling kayaks on the river, play Migration Golf, listen to a story teller, make a fish print, buy a piece of art, and learn about the wonderful things that make up the Umpqua Watershed.

At 4:00 PM on Sunday, all of the volunteers collapse – but only for a short while. There are things to take down, which will go on through Monday as well. Is it worth it? Come visit us and see.

For more information on Tsalila, please visit the web site at or contact any of the partners listed. Tsalila occurs in Reedsport, on the southern Oregon coast.

Sharon Morse is an interpreter/environmental education specialist for the Bureau of Land Management – Coos Bay District. She can be reached at (541)751-4222 or