Outside interest in Willapa's survival may turn the tide in the battle for the bay

A member of the Pacific County weed board used to recite a little ditty about spartina a decade ago, something like "We'll study it some more in '94, but it'll be too late by '98."

Referring to seemingly endless technical studies, bureaucratic red tape and environmental litigation, this poem pretty well captured the tremendous sense of frustration felt by many around the bay over intractable delays that put tedious process in front of urgent action.

It's true that some concerns were not totally frivolous - caution is warranted before using herbicides in an aquatic environment. But in the meantime, 12,000 acres of the great tidal flats of Willapa were being consumed by a bright green invader, invulnerable as it was relentless. Up to 56,000 of Willapa's 80,000 acres are at risk.

Thousands of acres are infested, lost to migratory birds and shellfish. With no natural enemies in the Pacific Northwest, this imported grass can grow by up to 486 percent a year in places.

It's far too early to call off the wake for Willapa's miraculous habitat. There is now, however, some positive news. As explored during last month's Willapa Bay summit conference hosted by U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, signs point toward a growing federal interest in halting the destruction of habitat in the 13,600-acre Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.

A team comprised of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, U.S. Reps. Baird and Norm Dicks, the Nature Conservancy of Washington, state agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been successful for two straight years in obtaining funds to mount a spartina eradication effort. Murray's efforts have been particularly impressive.

With last year's money, refuge and state personnel successfully applied herbicide to 5,000 acres of spartina. The coming year's efforts will build upon this and continue applying what is learned as this important work moves ahead.

Widely distributed and spreading both by seeds and other mechanisms, spartina will be difficult to control. Past efforts have shown that unless eradication efforts are ongoing, it can swiftly re-colonized areas from which it has been eliminated. One or two or even five years of $1 million/year funding will not solve this problem.

The happiest news to develop out of Baird's conference and last week's funding announcement is the sense that the bay now has an powerful and extensive network of friends outside Pacific County. No longer are we fighting this battle alone. Others recognize the national treasure in our neighborhood.

Maybe we can say in 2010, spartina's a has-been.

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