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Plan for Refuge Would Turn
Farmland Back to Marshes and Mudflats

by Associated Press, September 21, 2004

Farmland that was drained and diked more than 100 years ago would turn back into salt marshes and mudflats for migrating salmon under a 15-year plan for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

A $30 million plan the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is soon expected to approve calls for taking down most of a system of dikes that separates the refuge from the salty waters of Puget Sound, reviving nearly 700 acres of what used to be an estuary.

A smaller dike would be built to protect the refuge headquarters, a visitor center and more than 200 acres of freshwater wetland.

Created 30 years ago, the 2,925-acre sanctuary surrounds the mouth of the Nisqually River, about 20 miles southwest of Tacoma. Best known as a haven for migratory birds, the refuge hosted 140,000 visitors last year.

More than 275 kinds of birds populate the area periodically, including song birds, shorebirds, waterfowl, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, herons and osprey.

Over the past 150 years, diking and urban development have destroyed 80 percent of Puget Sound's estuaries, coastal areas where salt and fresh water mix and nourish marine life. Biologists believe the habitat loss has contributed to declines in populations of salmon and other fish and wildlife.

Besides tearing down dikes, the 15-year plan envisions doubling the size of the refuge and extending its boundary south of Interstate 5 to include agricultural lands.

"The plan reflects our place in the landscape," said Jean Takekawa, a wildlife biologist who manages the refuge. "It will provide a better mosaic of habitats, including the slopes of the bluffs and it will protect water quality."

Even if the plan is approved, expanding the refuge isn't likely to happen quickly. The biggest hurdle will be getting the money for it, an estimated $30 million that Congress would have to appropriate.

The government would also have to buy property, and only from willing sellers. Takekawa said government officials will not use their authority to condemn or take land for the refuge and noted the refuge can't unilaterally enforce regulations on private land.

Jeff Schilter, who farms about 170 acres that's on the list of property the government is interested in buying, doesn't like the idea.

"I don't think it will benefit or make real good use of taxpayer dollars," Schilter said.

Some critics have complained that it would destroy a popular walking trail, replacing it with a shorter trail that would include a boardwalk over part of the restored estuary.

The Nisqually Tribe likes the expansion plan. It bought 400 acres of farm land several years ago, using a state salmon-recovery grant to turn about 30 acres of it into an estuary as part of an effort to restore a wild run of chinook salmon.

David Troutt, the tribe's natural resource director, predicted the new habitat will double the survival of young salmon that migrate down the river.

The refuge already has about $2 million to begin to restore the estuary, but the permit process could delay construction for a couple of years, Takekawa said.

Another part of the long-term plan calls for an education center that would serve thousands of students who visit the refuge each year. Related Pages:

Associated Press
Plan for Refuge Would Turn Farmland Back to Marshes and Mudflats, September 21, 2004

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