Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wetlands aren’t wastelands

by Camille St. Onge, communication manager, Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program

Once regarded as wastelands, wetlands are now recognized as important features of our landscape. In fact, healthy coastal wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, comparable to rainforests and coral reefs. Wetlands are part of a diverse and complex set of ecosystems that are vital to Washington’s economy and an important part of our natural heritage.

Coastal wetlands and estuaries have long provided fish, waterfowl and building materials that supported native populations and early settlers. Today, wetlands comprise less than 10 percent of the nation’s land area yet support a significant number of wildlife species, including 75 percent of migratory birds, nearly 80 percent of fish and shellfish, and about half of all our threatened and endangered species. Sadly, wetlands in coastal watersheds in the U.S. are experiencing a net annual loss of about 80,160 acres according to a new study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wetlands’ economic benefits

In addition to being a fundamental part of our ecosystem, wetlands bring economic benefits to communities. If a community had to build flood control or water treatment systems to replace those functions provided by wetlands, the costs could far outweigh the land purchase price of preserving the natural wetland systems.

Similarly, when wetlands lose their value as fish habitat, this value is difficult to replace, and the consequent losses to the recreational and commercial fishing industries can be significant. There are as yet no precise formulas that we can use to determine the accurate dollar value per acre of wetland, but the more we learn about wetlands, the higher that value becomes.

Ecology grants enhance and restore diminishing wetlands

Ecology was recently awarded $2.2 million in grant funding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to support three critical coastal wetland projects in Washington state. Using matching funds from this grant program, Ecology has a long history of successful partnerships with tribes, cities, counties, federal and state agencies and others to acquire, restore and enhance coastal wetlands throughout Washington.

The projects selected for the 2014 grant funds will help restore and enhance Washington’s wetlands. The grant program is a significant opportunity for the selected communities to leverage their local dollars with matching federal grant funds. These projects will help preserve wetlands for future generations.

About the projects

Lower Naselle – Ellsworth Creek Acquisition
Ecology, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), was awarded $921,767 to conserve 386 acres of estuarine wetlands and adjacent uplands at Willapa Bay in Pacific County. This project includes estuarine tidal lands along the Lower Naselle River and within TNC’s adjacent Ellsworth Creek Preserve. The project supports ongoing conservation efforts of a large number of agencies and partners, including the nearby Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge, to protect and restore the bay.

Skokomish Estuary Restoration
Ecology, in partnership with the Mason Conservation District and Skokomish Tribe, was awarded $1 million to complete the restoration of estuarine wetlands located on the Skokomish Reservation at the mouth of the Skokomish River in Mason County. The project builds upon the successful work of Phase 1, with the goal of restoring natural processes, functions, and species to an 825-acre area of the Skokomish estuary, which contains a variety of nationally declining wetland types.

Elliott Slough Acquisition
Ecology, in partnership with the Chehalis River Basin Land Trust was awarded $310,000 to permanently protect 175 acres of high quality coastal surge plain and six miles of sloughs at the head of Grays Harbor, in Grays Harbor County. This acquisition is part of a larger effort to conserve the Chehalis River Surge Plain and is located next to a State Natural Area Preserve and an Audubon Society preserve.

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