In spite of numerous habitat restoration programs in fresh waters with an aggregate annual funding of millions of dollars, many populations of Pacific salmon remain significantly imperiled. Habitat restoration strategies that address limited environmental attributes and partial salmon life-history requirements or approaches that attempt to force aquatic habitat to conform to idealized but ecologically unsustainable conditions may partly explain this lack of response. Natural watershed processes generate highly variable environmental conditions and population responses, i.e., multiple life histories, that are often not considered in restoration. Examples from several locations underscore the importance of natural variability to the resilience of Pacific salmon. The implication is that habitat restoration efforts will be more likely to foster salmon resilience if they consider processes that generate and maintain natural variability in fresh water. We identify three specific criteria for management based on natural variability: the capacity of aquatic habitat to recover from disturbance, a range of habitats distributed across stream networks through time sufficient to fulfill the requirements of diverse salmon life histories, and ecological connectivity. In light of these considerations, we discuss current threats to habitat resilience and describe how regulatory and restoration approaches can be modified to better incorporate natural variability.