WILLAPA BAY — Willapa National Wildlife Refuge last Friday released its finished plan for the next 15 years. Changes respond to concerns raised by waterfowl hunters and others, but the adopted plan otherwise closely resembles the refuge’s original preferences.

For many who commented on the plans, removal of extensive dikes lining the south end of Willapa Bay was the hot-button issue. Objections to dike removal earlier this year led the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board to withdraw a grant that would have paid for much of the work, which is seen as a boon to young salmon.

Most dikes are still designated for removal in the adopted Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan. Instead of restoring the natural estuary functions of 749 acres of open water, intertidal flats and salt marsh on the south bay, 621 acres will be restored by removing dikes in the Lewis and Porter Point units.

The Riekkola Unit, under the adopted plan, will now include 93 acres of short-grass fields to be managed for Canada geese and Roosevelt elk. This is designed to keep geese and elk where they currently are, avoiding potential impacts on hunters and nearby cranberry bogs. Under the original plan, the refuge wouldn’t have included any pasture-like fields on the Riekkola Unit.

Estuary-restoration plans have also been changed to avoid impacting private property along South 67th Place, with this avoiding the need to elevate the county road — which is a designated tsunami-evacuation route.

The adopted plan includes three goose-hunting blinds and two general-purpose waterfowl-hunting blinds on the Riekkola Unit, with walk-in access. One of each type of blind will have barrier-free access for disabled persons. Additional wildlife-related recreation opportunities will be facilitated by allowing year-round access for all refuge visitors to Porter Point’s parking area, car-top boat launch and new trail. During hunting season, only hunters will be allowed to use the blinds.

Most other aspects of the plan are the same as in the refuge’s preferred “Alternative 2” presented in earlier meetings and news stories. Acreage to be added to the refuge in coming years includes 1,909 acres in the Naselle River area, 4,339 acres in the hills east of Willapa Bay and 561 acres along the south bay. Lands now managed by the Nature Conservancy of Washington in the Ellsworth Creek Area will be placed within the South Willapa Bay Conservation Area.

The now-submerged 808-acre Shoalwater Unit will be eliminated from the refuge’s land inventory, as will the 132-acre Wheaton Unit, which is 40 miles away from other refuge assets.

The refuge headquarters will, when funding allows, be moved to a new location on the Tarlett Unit, near the Public Utility District’s Sandridge Road facility.

The Chinook Observer will have more analysis and reaction to the final refuge plan next week.

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