Beth Larsen, an environmental planner with Snohomish County, talks about North Creek’s potential as a salmon habitat on Thursday at a new protected area south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Beth Larsen, an environmental planner with Snohomish County, talks about North Creek’s potential as a salmon habitat on Thursday at a new protected area south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Wildlife finds a new home at mitigation site near Mill Creek

Public works crews planted trees and piled up “woody debris” to mimic nature. It’s to make up for environmental impacts.

MILL CREEK — Behind a chain-link fence, along a nondescript road south of Mill Creek, a new riparian habitat is being born.

The trees aren’t much yet. More like branches stuffed into the ground. But they’ll grow into willow and hemlock and Douglas fir. And shrubs like serviceberry and salmonberry will sprawl through the woods-to-be.

Logs have been strewn alongside the creek, creating nice hangout spots for amphibians like frogs and salamanders. Bats and hawks like the new “snags,” jagged dead trees that reach toward the sky.

“Woody debris” — yes, that’s the technical term — give shelter to sparrows and robins, squirrels and chipmunks. The piles of logs and brush look haphazardly slapped together, but they give shade and shelter and even food, in the form of bugs.

Through it all runs North Creek. Coho salmon and cutthroat trout have been spotted here, said Beth Larsen, senior environmental planner with Snohomish County Public Works.

A sign indicates protected land on Thursday at a new protected habitat south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A sign indicates protected land on Thursday at a new protected habitat south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The 8-acre site along Waxen Road is one of several mitigation projects that public works has undertaken throughout the county, in an attempt to lessen the impacts of nearby developments on wildlife. This one is for the damage caused by the upcoming North Creek Trail, just a strong stone’s throw away.

This piling up of woody leftovers isn’t incidental. It’s all planned out, Larsen said, as a way to “jumpstart habitat.”

Public works crews started the practice over a decade ago, spokesperson Bill Craig said, when environmental specialists took a cue from other cities and counties.

“Team members thought it was a great idea to reuse brush, boulders, and other natural debris from a construction project to create small, but viable, habitats where critters like rodents and squirrels can live,” Craig wrote. “The brush piles are also a quicker, and cheaper, alternative to a slow environmental restoration process of using seedlings and saplings.”

A mound of branches and other natural debris provides habitat for animals on Thursday at a new protected habitat south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A mound of branches and other natural debris provides habitat for animals on Thursday at a new protected habitat south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The Waxen Road site used to have a house and a driveway. A little bridge used to cross the creek. The previous owner had mobile homes, trailers and storage containers chock-full of bikes and lawnmowers and other things.

The county bought the property to use as mitigation. Larsen said they were lucky to find a suitable spot so close to the trail. She noted sites like these will become harder to come by in the future. There’s only so much land left.

For passersby, the mitigation site is only to be admired from afar — from behind that chain-link fence. There’s no public access. The county will monitor progress for 10 years, Larsen said. Then, save for the occasional check-in to make sure invasive species aren’t taking over, the property will be left to nature.

And nature is already taking over, Larsen said. It didn’t take long for creatures to adapt to all that woody debris.

“A lot of wildlife will use them immediately,” she said.

A group of tiger swallowtails congregate on the ground on Thursday at a new protected habitat south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A group of tiger swallowtails congregate on the ground on Thursday at a new protected habitat south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A Herald reporter didn’t see much Thursday afternoon. A dead snake. Some butterflies fluttering about. A few bugs hopping around the water. Perhaps the wildlife was taking advantage of the nice weather elsewhere.

For fish, the logs and trees will create shade and calmer waters. It’ll be a nice break from a hard journey.

North Creek stretches from Everett to Bothell, where it meets with the Sammamish River. The land alongside it has been bombarded with development, as more and more people move here. Snohomish County is home to over 800,000 people today, and a few hundred thousand more are expected in the coming decades.

The waterway meanders through suburbs, strip malls, industrial centers. It crosses Highway 99, I-5, 405, 522 and countless smaller roads. (Or, at least, more roads than a Herald reporter is willing to count.)

Any fish that come through here are gonna have a hard time.

So, sometimes, a little relief is in order.

Beth Larsen, an environmental planner with Snohomish County, opens the gates at a new protected habitat area on Thursday south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Beth Larsen, an environmental planner with Snohomish County, opens the gates at a new protected habitat area on Thursday south of Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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