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Feds, Land Trust Complete Largest Estuary Habitat Purchase; Goal Is To Connect Wetlands With River
Posted on Friday, January 27, 2012 (PST)

The Columbia Land Trust, Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday announced what they say is the largest purchase of fish and wildlife riverside habitat in the Columbia River estuary in nearly 40 years.


The acquisition, and an accompanying conservation easement, will permanently protect what is considered essential refuge for salmon, steelhead and other wildlife, the involve parties say. The major goal is to “reconnect” the river with the property’s lowlands and sloughs, which have long been shut off by a Corps levee aimed at preventing flooding.


The acquisition, which will benefit salmon from Idaho, Oregon and Washington that migrate down through the estuary on their journey toward the Pacific Ocean, is intended to mitigate in some degree for impacts to fish and wildlife caused by federal dams on the Columbia and Snake river systems.


The Columbia Land Trust on Monday completed the purchase of the 920-acre Columbia Stock Ranch on the south shore of the Columbia River near Goble, Ore., with $5.3 million in BPA funding from electric ratepayers. Bonneville markets power generated in the Columbia/Snake hydro system.


The purchase sets the stage for the Corps to restore hundreds of acres of historic wetlands in the next few years to provide food and shelter for salmon migrating to and from the ocean. About 550 acres of the property is in the river’s floodplain and has been used grazing and other agricultural purposes. The rest is upland that is partially wooded.


“Right now the wetlands, the ponds, are cut off from the river,” said the Corps’ Diana Fredlund.


The Land Trust, which will manage the property, will do a baseline assessment of the property and produce management goals. And the Corps, which is charged with restoration of the property to better accommodate fish and wildlife, is studying its options. A goal is to launch a public “environmental assessment” process under the National Environmental Policy Act that would involve choosing a preferred alternative.


“We don’t know yet how we’re going to do it,” Fredlund said of the primary goal of reconnecting the property’s wetlands with the Columbia to provide access for juvenile salmon.


The property is located about 75 river miles upstream from the Columbia mouth.


The Land Trust said the lush and diverse piece of land, a former cattle ranch and dairy farm, was entrusted to them by a family that had owned the property for six decades.


“After nearly 18 months of negotiations, the family decided that their legacy would be in the best of hands with Columbia Land Trust,” according to information posted on the Land Trust’s web page. “We are very excited about the potential to restore this as a feeding, rearing and sheltering wetlands for migrating salmon and other wetlands species.”


“This is the largest single acquisition we have completed, and we look forward to restoring it with the help of our partners, Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers.”


The acquisition protects more estuary habitat for conservation than any other single purchase since the early 1970s.


“The size and ecological importance of this habitat set a new benchmark for habitat protection and is a key piece in an extensive fish refuge system in the lower Columbia River,” said Glenn Lamb, executive director of the Columbia Land Trust. “In the last 10 years we have worked with about 60 landowners to conserve 9,100 acres of estuarine and tributary spawning and rearing habitat. BPA has been an important partner in many of these projects. The estuary is a particularly vital nursery for young salmon, and this project is the best demonstration yet of conserving and restoring the lands that make the estuary so valuable.”


An independent panel of biologists identified the parcel as an especially valuable swath of historic tidal wetlands that if restored would boost survival of young salmon as they transition to saltwater. Some two-thirds of estuary wetlands have been lost over the last century, but recognition of their biological significance has encouraged restoration.


“Everything we learn tells us more and more that the estuary is very important to juvenile fish,” said Ron Thom, a Pacific Northwest Laboratory scientist specializing in ecosystem restoration who helps assess potential projects. “Restoration can create more habitat to support them. In general, the more opportunities for fish to access large, productive rearing and feeding habitats, the better the chances of young salmon gaining strength and ultimately surviving.”


That Expert Regional Technical Group used criteria developed for assessing the level of benefits the restoration of particular properties might bring to both “ocean-type” salmon, such as Snake River fall chinook, and stream-type fish like upriver spring chinook. The fall chinook swim toward the ocean as subyearlings, for the most part, and use estuary habitats extensively to bolster themselves before entering the ocean. Stream types exit as yearlings.


A reconnected Columbia Stock Ranch wetland “will benefit both types of fish,” said BPA’s estuary habitat program lead, Ben Zelinski. “It’s a great location.” On the science group’s 5-point survival benefit rating scale, the property rated a 4.5.


“In the past I don’t think we have had any (properties) over 1,” Zelinski said. Such estuary, and tributary, habitat restoration is called for in NOAA Fisheries’ 2008/2010 biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System. The goal is to improve survival of ocean-type salmon by 9 percent, and for stream-type by 6 percent, through estuary improvements implemented during the 10-year BiOp program. The expert panel was set by NOAA Fisheries, BPA and the Corps, as directed by the BiOp.


“I applaud the collaboration between the parties – the local landowners, the Estuary Partnership, the Land Trust and the federal agencies – in bringing this project into our Fish and Wildlife Program to help mitigate for the hydro system’s effects on salmon and steelhead. Estuary projects benefit multiple populations and increase the benefits for the ratepayer dollars spent,” said Joan Dukes, chair of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.


“The Columbia Stock Ranch site offers a large area for contiguous restoration,” said Elvon Childs, the Corps’ Columbia Stock Ranch project manager. “We are designing the project so it maximizes benefits for salmonid habitat restoration with direct tidal connections to the Columbia River.”


“Not since the early 1970s when the two lower Columbia River wildlife refuges were established has there been a single purchase of this magnitude purely for conservation,” said Debrah Marriott, executive director of the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership. “The Deer Island area was once a rich network of forests, shrub scrub, wetlands, sloughs and floodplain lakes that provide critical shallow water areas for juvenile salmon resting and rearing as they make their way to the ocean.


“With this purchase and the restoration of this property, these essential habitats will once again become available to Endangered Species Act listed fish and other species,” Marriott said.


The 10-year BiOp, released in 2008 and supplemented in 2010, judges whether the dams jeopardize the survival of wild salmon and steelhead that are protected under the ESA. It prescribes measures, such as habitat restoration, needed to improve fish survival. The mitigation includes new technology ensuring more fish pass dams safely and has an increased focus on the estuary from Bonneville Dam 146 miles downstream to the mouth of the river.


“We’ve seen fish returning to other restored habitat within days, so large, contiguous properties such as this one should boost salmon survival even more,” said Lorri Bodi, BPA vice president of Environment, Fish and Wildlife. “Healthy estuary habitat is like a Head Start program for salmon that makes them that much more likely to return to the Northwest to spawn as adults.”


Management and restoration plans for the property will be developed with public input. Restoration work will also support the local economy and jobs. The restored habitat will benefit coho, chinook and chum salmon; steelhead; and cutthroat trout, as well as terrestrial wildlife such as black bear, elk and river otter.


When the transaction is complete the Columbia Land Trust will own and manage the property for fish and wildlife conservation purposes.


This land acquisition would satisfy some of BPA’s mitigation requirements for the Columbia River estuary as identified in the NOAA Fisheries BiOp.


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