Good things happening in local wildlife lands

"Top 10 Treasures of the Lower Columbia Region" is an interesting topic for public discussion and might include the Ilwaco Heritage Museum, Oysterville and the Astor Column.

Less obvious perhaps is our magnificent system of federal wildlife refuges, including the Julie Butler Hansen Refuge encompassing about 5,000 acres on the river in Washington and Oregon, the 43,000-acre Lewis and Clark Refuge upriver from Astoria, and the 15,000-acre (and growing) Willapa Refuge in Pacific County.

It's safe to say most local residents go from one decade to the next without setting foot in these refuges, with the exception of birdwatchers, duck hunters, kayakers and the occasional hiker. The fact they don't crawl with people is one of their great charms, and in any event they are intended for wildlife, not hoards of human visitors.

This isn't to suggest the public is unwelcome. More local knowledge and familiarity with the wondrous wildness of the refuges will ensure they prosper. They aren't lavishly funded and have been one of the forgotten stepchildren in the federal property system.

Spending a sunny summer afternoon, or even a stormy spring morning, on the shores of Willapa Bay or the Twilight Creek Eagle Sanctuary is to connect with planet. You come away feeling like all the cells in your body are talking to each other, reawakened to the possibilities of life.

Success stories abound in nearby refuges. Last week's relocation of additional Columbian white-tailed deer to new island habitat is an important milestone in this once-decimated species' return to long-term viability. By expanding the deer's secure range, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service insures that no one disaster or disease will hammer them back into danger.

With help from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the Columbia Land Trust and Bonneville Power Administration, more than 600 acres are being added to the refuge system along the river, helping not only these deer, but salmon and a host of other species as well.

In Washington, federal appropriations made possible by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Reps. Norm Dicks and Brian Baird are adding 2,300 acres to the Willapa Refuge. Since late 1999, about 1,500 of these have been acquired from willing sellers, including 422 acres announced last week.

This isn't anonymous land added for no good reason - last week's purchase preserves a crucial wildlife corridor along U.S. 101 on the bay's south shore, land that had been subdivided for residential ranchettes by an out-of-area developer.

Other federal money is making a genuine dent in Willapa's spartina infestation. Traditional Northwest tidal flats are emerging from under thick carpets of the vile grass, and migrating shorebirds are returning.

Refuge complex manager Charlie Stenvall and other local staffers deserve a forest of praise and credit for what they are achieving.

You should plan a Saturday in one of these refuges, true regional and national treasures. But even if you don't go, know that great things are happening there. Quiet, but great.

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