Herrera Beutler acts to stall refuge restoration

She helps get funds pulled for Willapa Bay project

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Managers of the Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge regard the Bear River Estuary Plan as the logical next step in the ongoing restoration of Willapa Bay.

It calls for removing more than five miles of dikes, numerous ditches and culverts, two fish ladders and a tide gate from the south end of the refuge, near Ilwaco. Its goal is to re-establish the natural channels of three streams that flow into the estuary and return more than 800 acres of pasture and freshwater impoundments to tidal wetlands and salt marshes, with benefits to juvenile salmon and migratory and shore birds.

The $15 million project was scheduled to begin last month and be completed in three years.

But in Pacific County, the agency’s plan won few friends.

Hunters said the loss of freshwater habitat inside the earthen dikes could reduce goose and duck populations. Cranberry growers said elk deprived of the pasture created by diking and diversions would migrate to their property and damage their crops.

Opponents went to U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, with their concerns. They also enlisted local legislators and Pacific County commissioners. In March, the congresswoman agreed to hold a “listening session” in the county, which drew more than 200 people. She succeeded in getting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend its public comment period on the project.

The upshot: In April, Herrera Beutler, joined by local officials, asked the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board to put its $473,000 contract with the local fish enhancement group on hold. “Through public meetings and numerous contacts with our respective offices, the citizens of Pacific County have voiced their growing alarm regarding the scope and cost associated with this project,” they wrote.

In May, the board, which selects salmon recovery projects for state funding, took the unusual step of agreeing to withdraw the funding it had approved, at least temporarily.

Herrera Beutler applauded the decision. “It’s encouraging they took our letter seriously, and that they listened to all of the concerns over this controversial project,” she said in a statement. And she promised her involvement wouldn’t stop there.

“Our continued engagement in the broader Willapa Refuge process will be needed,” she wrote. “I will continue to take action to ensure the people of Pacific County are heard.”

Critics said public involvement in the project was lacking. Refuge project leader Charlie Stenvall said planning for the project began in 2008 and the agency received 220 comments on its draft environmental impact statement. A final EIS is due later this month.

“The validity of the project is still there,” Stenvall said. “There was no technical or scientific data put forward that invalidated the project’s benefits.”

Mike Johnson, director of the Pacific County Conservation District, told the Chinook Observer that if the state salmon recovery board refused to fund the project, “we will do what we need to do to get it funded elsewhere.”

Objections disputed

It’s not unusual for members of Congress to get involved in federal land management decisions. Northwest members of Congress set national forest timber sale levels during the 1980s, often ordering more logging than the Forest Service had recommended. Management of Oregon’s Klamath Basin national wildlife refuges became a hot political topic during the administration of President George W. Bush, when irrigation water was withheld from local farmers to protect threatened fish species.

However, Stenvall said it’s rare for a project to lose funding when it’s so far along.

In her letter, Herrera Beutler warned of “serious environmental consequences from this project on other wildlife species,” including dusky Canada geese. But Stenvall says the project’s overall goal is to restore the original salt marsh habitat of Willapa Bay, 60 percent of which has been lost due to diking and water diversions.

It’s critical for juvenile chum salmon, which hang out in tidal channels and seek forage in salt marshes when the tide comes in, he said. And it’s important for shorebirds, as well as geese and ducks.

Now that the refuge has eradicated spartina, the invasive grass that wreaked havoc on Willapa Bay, native grasses have returned, attracting more waterfowl, Stenvall said. And elk are beginning to use the salt marshes as well.

In fact, with 11,000 acres of pasture in the bay, there is no shortage of habitat for geese and elk, he said. Elk numbers are growing on the refuge, prompting managers to propose a hunting season for the herd. And dusky Canada geese, which use upland pastures, are not a protected species.

In contrast, he said, habitat is scarce for shorebirds, and juvenile chum and coho salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout don’t use the fresh-water impoundments created by the dikes.

“We can spend a lot of money managing habitat for species that don’t belong here,” Stenvall said. Instead, the goal of restoration in Willapa Bay is to recreate habitat for “all the native assemblage that used to be here.”