The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has proposed purchasing up to 205.8 acres north of Skamokawa through a US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Coastal Wetland Conservation grant, with a match from the Wahkiakum Conservation District.
In the past five years, the conservation district has received $771,000 worth of funding from the Salmon Recovery Board to address drainage issues in the Skamokawa Creek Basin. The district has replaced culverts and is working on tidegates to improve drainage.
In its land transaction application, WDFW says it "will target acquisition of eight parcels in a two-year period from January, 2015." Once the lands have been purchased, WDFW will work with Bonneville Power Administration, US Army Corps of Engineers and other partners to design "fish restoration alternatives." The primary concept, the application says, is to redirect surface water flows from the current channel of Skamokawa Creek back into Dead Slough, the historic channel. This will create tidally influenced wetlands and seasonal flooding for 380-680 acres of floodplain.
"The goal of the proposed habitat restoration action is to restore a naturally functioning wetland ecosystem that will benefit several species of anadromous salmonids that were extirpated from the Skamokawa Creek acquisition basin about 50 years ago," the application says. The habitat surrounding historic Skamokawa Creek has been put into agricultural use "which has likely had an overall negative impact on the wildlife that use these prior wetland complexes," the application says. "However, due to the continued saturation and inundation of these lands, many past agricultural practices have been abandoned and a majority of the land is vacant. In the target areas for this grant round, there are only two homes on eight parcels."
WDFW says it has talked with the owners of the lowest parcel, and they would be willing sellers.
County officials learned of the project early this week, and Tuesday, county commissioners expressed strong concerns about the aquisition but said they wanted to meet with WDFW staff to learn more about it.
Commission Chair Blair Brady commented he dislikes the practice of state and federal resource agencies or non-profit organizations buying county farmland and returning it to natural habitat.
Agencies have purchased much land in the floodplain for various projects and "they don't seem to fulfill the projects they start," he said. Because the projects often include the practice of breaching dikes to create wetlands, he suggested the county consider passing an ordinance prohibiting the breaching of dikes.
"Sure there are some good things, and there are willing sellers," he said, "but whenever Fish and Wildlife does anything, it never benefits us."
Commissioner Mike Backman called the application's intended benefit to salmonids "misleading."
The public is prohibited from taking wild fish, he said, and recreational and commercial fishers would be prohibited from harvesting any salmon benefitting from the project.
"You won't be able to keep them; they'll all be wild fish," he said.
"What really worries me, the people on the lower river, we get zilch," Cothren said. "It's the people on the upper river, in the urban areas, that get benefit from these things."
Westend resident Art Hyland urged the commissers to take a strong stance against the project.
"We are seeing the federalization of the county," he said. "In 50 years, this county will just be a (game) refuge. You guys right now are in charge of watching the project. We need strong leadership to stop it."
Commissioners said they would invite WDFW personnel to a future meeting so they could better understand the project.