Forestland, salmon streams transferred to Willapa refuge

 

February 29, 2024

The Willapa National Wildlife Refuge received a significant boost earlier this year when more than 2,000 acres of industrial timberland and a network of salmon streams came under its protection.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a 2,366-acre transfer from Western Rivers Conservancy, a conservation group that acquires lands along rivers throughout the West to conserve critical habitat and improve access for public use. The land in question, the Willapa Coastal Forest, includes a network of Willapa Bay salmon streams and stands of temperate forest.

"The Willapa Coastal Forest is an otherworldly kind of place," Alex Barton, project manager for Western Rivers Conservancy, said in a statement. "There are still pockets of mature coastal forest where giant trees tower over the Bear River. When you're there amidst those trees and you see wild salmon swimming upstream, it's impossible not to recognize just how important this property is."

Western Rivers Conservancy purchased the land from Forest Investment Associates, an investment manager that specializes in sustainable forestry, and set its sights on buying the property back in 2020. The two spent more than three years lining up funding for the project from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and Washington's Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

Once funding was in place, Western Rivers Conservancy purchased the property and conveyed it to USFWS to become part of the wildlife refuge. Jack Stover, Forest Investment Associates' director of U.S. operations, called the deal a "tremendous outcome."

Bear River

Bear River flows out of the southern Willapa Hills into Willapa Bay near Long Beach.

Tyler Roemer/Western Rivers Conservancy

"Our stewardship approach blends sustainable production forestry with old-growth conservation and best management practices for watershed protection," Stover said. "We are thrilled that responsible management will continue with expanded recreation access for this locally vital property."

Willapa Bay is the second-largest estuary on the West Coast and much of it is protected within the wildlife refuge, which was created in the 1930s. The refuge contains abundant salt marshes and tidal mudflats, coastal dunes and beaches, grasslands, freshwater wetlands and old-growth forests.

Refuge's plansWith this new land officially in the fold, USFWS is aiming to open it up for recreational use by 2025 or 2026 for activities like hiking, bird watching and wildlife viewing.

Jackie Ferrier, project leader at the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said the addition of the Willapa Coastal Forest to the refuge brings with it multiple benefits.

Bear River - Willapa Bay Web Map

"Conserving habitat in and around the Bear River will complement the refuge's recent restoration work in the estuary, and adding land to the refuge will improve access to the area for hikers, hunters, wildlife watchers and others," she said.

A variety of fish species, including chum salmon, fall Chinook, coho, winter steelhead, coastal cutthroat trout and Pacific lamprey, all spawn in the Bear River and its tributaries, and many of the young fish rear in the revitalized estuary downstream.

"Conserving miles of salmon spawning habitat immediately upstream of the newly restored Bear River estuary is a potential game-changer for fish," said Barton. "It's the perfect project at the perfect time."

Additionally, state lands that are adjacent to the Willapa Coastal Forest have historically been difficult to access, and officials said this acquisition will make accessing that property an easier task.

Other land acquisition The Willapa Coastal Forest isn't the only significant land purchase USFWS has made over the past year. Last June, USFWS purchased 988 acres from Lewis and Clark Tree that is located east of the refuge's new headquarters in its South Bay Unit.

This forestland is adjacent to existing refuge land, according to Ferrier. "We look forward to conserving, managing, and restoring wildlife habitat on these parcels.

Staff at the refuge are currently in the planning phase, she added, and are evaluating what types of habitat management actions they may take and what recreational activities to offer. Additional information about the recent public land acquisitions are expected to be posted on the refuge's website, http://www.fws.gov/refuge/willapa, in the coming weeks.

"It will take time to conduct our legal and congressionally required actions to support these new lands," Ferrier said. "As we work to conduct surveys and determine future management actions and recreation opportunities, we hope to get lots of public input."

 

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