WILLAPA BAY — Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler applauded the state Salmon Recovery Funding (SRF) Board’s unanimous vote last week to put their contract for the Bear River Estuary Restoration Plan on hold for the time being. 

“On behalf of the residents of Pacific County I’m thrilled with the board’s decision,” Herrera Beutler said. “It’s encouraging they took our letter seriously, and that they listened to all of the concerns over this controversial project. Our continued engagement in the broader Willapa Refuge process will be needed.  My office’s listening session in March was an effective venue for community members to increase their engagement, and I will continue to take action to ensure the people of Pacific County are heard.”

The plan by the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge to remove earthen dikes lining the south end of Willapa Bay has sparked some local opposition — most vocally from waterfowl hunters who fear the loss of freshwater habitat inside the dikes would damage goose and duck populations. Pacific County commissioners and District 19 legislators joined in asking the SRF board to reconsider the dike removal project.

Fred Cook, a former Long Beach city councilman and an opponent of the project, said, “I’m absolutely thrilled with the decision and I recognize it’s just one skirmish in a much longer battle.”

Cook continued, “It’s an outstanding move because the process was not well followed in terms of public involvement. But it’s not all said and done. We’ve only staved off a process so that we can take our time and put forward better science. 

“There is science out there that shows that the impact [of dike removal] on salmon recovery would be negligible.”

Cook said when you have five miles of “beautiful trails, why would you want to pull those out and build one mile of an expensive boardwalk to replace them? It doesn’t make any sense.

“It’s nice to see that the grassroots portion of the process can work sometimes.”  

 

Others still want project

But not all Pacific County citizens are happy about the decision to sidetrack the restoration plan, in which they see big advantages for salmon recovery. 

Mike Johnson, director of the Pacific County Conservation District, the lead entity that presented the dike removal project at Bear River to the agency that assigns funding, said, “It’s a shame. From a technical perspective, it’s an excellent project. If the SRF board can’t fund it, we’ll do what we need to do to get it funded elsewhere.”

Charles Stenvall, project lead at the Wildlife Refuge, agreed, “The validity of the project is still there — the reasons and the benefits are still there. There was no technical or scientific data put forward that invalidated the project benefits. It seems to be a problem with the process.” 

“They [SRF board] want to review the process and see that it was followed properly. We will find alternative funding if needed.”

First time for project defunding

The funding for dike removal contracts, totaling $473,000, has not been entirely lost. It has merely been set aside pending a more complete discovery process about what may have gone wrong with the public-engagement part of this project. 

Kaleen Cottingham, director of the funding organization confirmed, “It’s a rare day when we defund a project so far down the road. This is the first time it has ever happened.

“We take care throughout the entire process to make sure our procedures are followed. Some public officials seemed surprised to find out that this was happening under their watch — Jon Kaino [Pacific County commissioner] almost apologized for the problem when he spoke in front of our board. Maybe they weren’t paying enough attention.”

Kat Moore, outdoor grants manager for SRF, sent the actual wording of the motion that has frozen the Bear River dike removal contract. It reads as follows, “Member Troutt moved to pull back funds, terminate the contract, hold the funds for the future for this project, have staff audit the public engagement process, and make a decision on the whether to reissue a contract after there are assurances about the public process that protect the integrity of the SRFB process. Brown seconded. The motion was approved.”

Next steps will include the SRF board conducting an audit of the public involvement process to determine if the procedures was properly complied with. “It may be that some boxes were checked without the action taking place,” Cottingham said. “We will revisit the project after we complete our audit.”

“Until we complete this audit, we will hold $400,000 in abeyance, probably until the end of August,” she added.

 

Decision on refuge alternatives

The removal of the dike at Bear River to create 750 additional acres of saltwater tidelands for juvenile salmon is a part of the comprehensive plan for the Willapa Wildlife Refuge, as outlined in the Chinook Observer on Jan. 26. The plan indicated three possible alternatives for the future. The final decision will be made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Regional Office in Portland.

Joan Jewitt, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Pacific Region, could not comment on the details of the funding process for the dike removal but confirmed that the planning process is going forward. “I don’t know exactly what all has been going on with the funding for the dike removal portion of the project,” she said, “but we will have a final comprehensive plan confirmed sometime in August.”

Jewitt acknowledged that the public comment period for the proposed comprehensive plan was extended from 45 to 60 days to allow for late input into the project. The input period ended in March.

“During the comment period we had 212 written comments. These aren’t ‘votes’ per se. But we do cluster like comments and respond to those in depth,” said Jewitt.

“These comments and responses will be included in the final Comprehensive Plan for the Willapa Wildlife Refuge. What we strive to do is come up with plan that will do the job of realizing the environmental purpose of the refuge in balance with recreational uses.”

The decision about alternatives for the refuge will ultimately be made by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Robyn Thorson, who was unavailable for comment.

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