CLARIFICATION ADDED JAN. 12, 2016: Information provided by the Washington State Salmon Funding Recovery Board was premature in stating Columbia Land Trust will acquire to conserve 250 acres in the Chinook River floodplain. The action described by the state has not yet occurred and is subject to change after negotiations.

Cowlitz Tribe expands salmon-restoration efforts on Columbia estuary

Observer staff report

CHINOOK — A major land purchase on the inland side of Chinook will place 250 acres in permanent conservation status. This is part of more than $1 million in 2016 grant-funded salmon habitat efforts recently announced for Pacific County by the Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Puget Sound Partnership.

Elsewhere in the county, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe was granted more than $180,000 for ongoing habitat restoration in the Grays River watershed. And the Pacific County Anglers were awarded $382,354 to restore fish passage on Stringer Creek south of Menlo in north county.

Lands along the Chinook River have been eyed for more than 20 years as offering a potential to restore tidal wetlands that juvenile salmon and other species heavily rely on for food and shelter.

Since white settlement began, an estimated 68 to 70 percent of vegetated tidal wetlands have been lost in the Columbia River floodplain of which the Chinook River is a part, according to the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership. Loss of this habitat is cited by biologists as a key factor in long-term declines in salmon numbers.

Increasing the amount of these wetlands accessible to migrating salmon is a key goal for agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. WDFW has expanded its land holdings on the Chinook River in recent years and now owns 1,000 acres.

Now, aided with $450,500 in state grants announced earlier this month and $89,500 in federal funds, Vancouver-based Columbia Land Trust will buy a mile of fish habitat on the Chinook River from Chinook resident Brian Wirkkala and associated owners. More than 200 acres of the acquisition are wetlands.

“The acquisition will enable habitat restoration and support local and out-of-basin populations of fall Chinook, chum and coho salmon, and steelhead, all of which are listed as threatened with extinction under the federal Endangered Species Act as well as listed eulachon [also called smelt],” according to the Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

When completed, the purchase will be one of Columbia Land Trust’s larger acquisitions in Pacific County, where it already owns 45 parcels, according to the Pacific County Assessor’s Office. It has major holdings in the Long Beach Peninsula’s interior lakes region, acquisitions which were indirectly financed by Mircosoft co-founder Paul Allen. On the Columbia estuary in Pacific County, the land trust already has significant holdings near the mouth of the Wallacut River in Ilwaco’s Stringtown neighborhood, and near Knappton just off State Route 401.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe has been taking an interest in salmon-restoration projects in the Columbia estuary in about the past two years in cooperation with Bonneville Power Administration, though this area is outside the tribe’s traditional sphere of influence. Starting in 2014, the tribe managed habitat work in Clatsop County at the confluence of the Wallooskee and Youngs rivers.

In this latest round of grants, the Cowlitz will:

• Receive $55,997 and make an equal donation of cash to work with Rayonier Corp. to abandon .65 miles of old logging road, pull back .67 miles of fill, and replace four large culverts that carry streams under roads in private forests in the Grays River watershed in eastern Pacific County.

Rayonier’s geologist identified the areas as likely slide areas that could dump large amounts of sediment in the river, which is used by winter steelhead.

• The Cowlitz also will get a $124,300 grant, to which they will add $23,400 in donated materials, to develop preliminary designs and install vertical pilings to capture and keep large tree root wads and logs in the East Fork Grays River.

Large woody materials encourage habitat stability and complexity, creating places for fish to rest, feed, and hide from predators. They also slow the river, which reduces erosion and allows small rocks to settle to the riverbed, creating areas for salmon to spawn, according to the funding board. The river is used by winter steelhead spawning adults and rearing juveniles.

The board is granting $382,354 to Pacific County Anglers, which will use the money to remove a culvert that carries Stringer Creek under Hyland/Stringer Road, and build a new channel for the creek.

Removing the culvert will open 6.6 miles of high-quality salmon habitat in the Willapa River Valley, according to the funding board.

Stringer Creek is used by chum, Chinook and coho salmon, steelhead, and cutthroat trout. Pacific County Anglers will contribute $68,048.

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