Nature reclaims its place at Port Susan Bay Preserve

  • By Mike Benbow Special to The Herald
  • Friday, January 2, 2015 3:55pm
  • LifeStanwood

The Nature Conservancy made news earlier this year with the purchase of nearly 48,000 acres of forest near Snoqualmie Pass, a move that should provide an important link to the area’s national forests for wildlife.

The nonprofit group purchased a checkerboard of property from Plum Creek Timber Co. located between the Cascade Mountain pass and the town of Ellensburg.

The purchase is the organization’s largest in Washington state, but certainly not its first. For years it has owned important outdoor properties in many areas of the state, including Snohomish and Island counties.

Its most significant property in Snohomish County is 4,100 acres of estuary in Port Susan Bay adjacent to the Stillaguamish River. Purchased in 2001, the Port Susan Bay Preserve’s tidelands were expanded in 2012 with the removal of 1.4 miles of dike.

The conservancy’s Kat Morgan said the dike had been degrading the estuary habitat, keeping fresh water from entering the northern part of the bay.

About 150 acres of what had been marginal farmland was put back underwater, with the intention of improving the estuary, providing more salmon habitat, and offering flood protection for the remaining farmland.

The conservancy’s Joelene Boyd said the area had lost about 37 percent of its vegetation, but the dike removal project is already starting to work, according to an ongoing study by researcher Roger Fuller for Western Washington University.

The saltwater marsh is reseeding itself with appropriate vegetation in some areas, Boyd said, noting others have been slow to recover.

“What’s preventing it is the next question,” Boyd said.

The bay is popular with migrating snow geese and shore birds, who use it for food and shelter in winter. Gray whales feed in the estuary en route to summer feeding grounds in Alaska. And the area is home to a variety of creatures.

Because of the diverse wildlife, Port Susan is a priority conservation area for the conservancy, which has been trying to develop a marine stewardship for the area with a partnership of a variety of governmental, tribal and educational institutions.

The property is typically closed to the public during waterfowl hunting season, which runs through Jan. 25, but is usually available for viewing during other times of the year. Because the property’s mile-long remaining dike is popular with birders, it often holds open houses during Arlington’s Eagle Festival or Stanwood’s Snow Goose Festival, both in February.

Or you can call ahead for permission at 360-419-3140.

In Island County, the conservancy purchased 43 acres in Livingston Bay on the eastern shore of Camano Island.

Like it did on the Port Susan property, it removed part of a manmade dike in Livingston Bay in 2012, turning a saltwater lagoon back into a pocket estuary by restoring the tideland connection.

The work restored more habitat for immature salmon.

Probably the conservancy’s most well-known property in Island County is at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island.

The Robert Y. Pratt Preserve is about 554 acres that is open to the public, offering a coastal trail with stunning views.

Much of the area is a coastal wetland and coastal prairie habitat, and is one of the least disturbed in Western Washington.

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