Proposed Refuge plan sees little hunter support

Mark Johnson of the Cascade Land Conservancy speaks to the panel about how the proposed expansion area is already owned by conservation entities and would likely be donated to the refuge.

ILWACO — People in hunting vests and duck-billed caps flocked to Hilltop auditorium Sunday for a helpful forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler to explore Willapa Wildlife Refuge expansion plans.

Although the planning process for the refuge’s next 15 years began in 2007, blasts of controversy have only recently fired up in the past several weeks. Refuge Project Leader Charlie Stenvall must be feeling like a duck straggling in for a landing after a long and peaceful flight, only to find a blind full of avid waterfowlers waiting for him.

Stenvall explained to the crowd of nearly 150 that the refuge-planning process is required by Congress. It must be legally defensible and science-based. It has included ample input from a variety of state and federal wildlife experts. 

He noted that the refuge plan is still a year or more away from being finalized and that even once it is complete, that is “not a guarantee that anything that’s in the plan is actually going to happen.” The public will comment on any final plan. Obtaining funds to implement plans is a separate process.

Stenvall briefly outlined the three current alternatives under consideration:

• Alternative 1, favored by most who spoke up at the forum, is to leave the refuge as it is. 

• Alternative 2, the most ambitious plan and the one favored by refuge staff, would add about 6,800 acres to the refuge’s holdings. A new headquarters and public outreach facilities would be built on the Long Beach Peninsula near Tarlett Slough east of the Public Utility District complex. And an extensive diking system that lines the southern part of the bay, essentially separating salt- and freshwater habitats, would be removed.

• Alternative 3 is more modest but still involves extensive land acquisition and estuary restoration.

 

Herrera and others speak up

Herrera Beutler, elected last November, led discussions by a well-balanced panel of state and local officials and others involved in the controversy, for or against Alternative 2.

She thanked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for extending the comment period on the refuge’s draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan until March 21. She said she sought the extension and convened the Sunday forum after hearing from constituents who told her they didn’t think the community has had sufficient time to digest and help shape the plans.

“It is clear the refuge is a loved and dear part of this community,” she said. Residents need to be able to articulate what “we want to do with this refuge.”

She later noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told her staff that the corps has little interest in the Willapa dikes, as they do not protect human habitations. This means the refuge is not required to remove them or maintain them to corps’ standards.

Speaking to removal costs, Stenvall said using corps-approved contractors, it would cost $30 million to upgrade the dikes or $15 million to remove them. But he said in reality, using the refuge’s own resources, the cost to take out the dikes in the Porter Point and Lewis Unit would be closer to $400,000. Riekkola Unir dike-removal costs are unclear at this time.

State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, spoke next and commended Stenvall’s work at the refuge, particularly in getting invasive spartina grass under control. 

But Blake said he shared several of the concerns local constituents have mentioned to him. He suggested leaving the dikes all in place what others eventually started calling “Alternative 4.” This would permit a head-to-head comparison for a few years with what is observed near South Bend and at the Nisqually refuge near Olympia, where similar dikes have been taken out.

Blake also worried about displacement of ducks and geese from their current habitat and about loss of timberland tax base that might result from transfer of lands to federal jurisdiction.

Later responding to these issues, Stenvall and others said estuary restorations like the one envisioned here have been common on the West Coast in recent years. They have proven benefits for waterfowl and greatly enhance wildlife diversity. For the most part, the lands being eyed for expansion are now owned by conservation groups and are not part of the county’s inventory of commercial timberland.

 

Land ownership

County Commissioner Jon Kaino also was concerned about a loss of forestland, a factor that has become acute in recent years as Pacific County’s share of timber excise taxes has plunged. He has been expressing worries about this trend for much of his time in office.

Kaino said he believes about 50,000 acres of land in the county is currently held in some variety of “preservation, conservation or habitat” status by agencies and conservation groups. Between one thing and another, counting things like salmon-bearing stream setbacks, the inventory of county land managed for forestry has fallen by about half from its previous total of 500,000 acres, he said.

As a consequence, “the tax burden has shifted from trees to you, the taxpayers,” Kaino said.

However, audience member Mark Johnson, of the Cascade Land Conservancy, later said that two-thirds of the refuge expansion area is already owned by his group, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources or by the Nature Conservancy of Washington (TNC).

In response to a question from Kaino, who noted TNC often sells land to agencies and uses the freed funds to acquire even more land for conservation, Johnson said his group intends an out right donation to the refuge.

As a general matter, he said Cascade favors Alternative 2. This is based in part on the fact that Willapa Bay remains in relatively good condition and that it makes more sense to preserve good habitat than to try to restore degraded habitat.

 

Hunting interests

Panel members Fred Cook, a former Long Beach councilman, and Steve Gray, a farmer, fisherman and goose hunter, both spoke in favor of keeping the refuge as it is. Cook noted that the two hunted waterfowl together as boys.

In his formal remarks, Gray primarily focused on how dike removal might result in a resident elk herd on the refuge moving into cranberry bogs, contaminating the crop. He also questioned what good dike removal would be to salmon, since none of the creeks in the southern bay refuge have the gravel bottoms needed for spawning.

Mike Johnson, district manager for the Pacific Conservation District, said the dike removal/estuary rehabilitation is the number-one ranked salmon-restoration project in the state. This is not because of its usefulness as spawning habitat, but because it will be ideal for juvenile fish in terms of food and shelter after they hatch.

Johnson said the advantages for salmon lead the conservation district to strongly support Alternative 2.

But hunters and the Washington Waterfowl Association representatives in the audience were not convinced. WWA representatives said the federal refuge system is largely a product of excise taxes and duck stamp revenues provided by hunters. Alternative 2 would render the south bay “basically useless for the waterfowling community” and is a “slap in the face for the sporting community,” they said.

A widely quoted statistic that asserts a 93 percent drop in the number of waterfowl using the Nisqually refuge since a tideland restoration is the work of a WWA member. 

Stenvall said this drop in bird numbers is not verified by the service’s own analysis. In Willapa, he said bird number rose from very few during the peak of the spartina invasion to about 30,000, which has now tapered down to about 10,000. But audience members said many more ducks and geese than this pass through the refuge as it is.

Refuge volunteer Arnold Richardson said “removing the dikes is 180 degrees opposed to the goals” expressed in the refuge’s own aspirations for a future healthy habitat.” Right now, the bay is the “highest quality and safest hunting to be had,” and he would hate to see that lost.

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