Jackie Ferrier was so excited she could barely stand still as salt water gently surged through an hours-old hole in a Willapa Bay dike.

"Look at that!" exclaimed Ferrier, who manages the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. "This is the first time it's had tidal flow in this area since the 50s. This is so cool!"

The historic, gurgling moment occurred during a high tide last week, as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew continued to remove a dike on the agency's Willapa refuge to improve habitat for fish and shorebirds.

Eventually, tides will bring saltwater onto 621 acres on the south end of the bay. Dikes had sheltered the area for about 60 years.

The dike removal is one aspect of the refuge's ambitious Comprehensive Conservation Plan, discussion of which began in 2008.

Dike removal isn't new in the Northwest. At the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia, 8 miles of dike removal was finished last year.

In the past few years, other federal wildlife refuges in Southwest Washington also have completed conservation plans. None of those other projects, though, were nearly as controversial as the Willapa plan, which at one time drew opposition from several elected officials and a funding delay by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.

One hotly debated part of the Willapa project was removal of 5 miles of dikes that, ironically, the Fish and Wildlife Service built to create pasture for geese. "We didn't know then" all the detrimental effects of diking wetlands, Ferrier said.

However, the dike has kept salmon from swimming to good spawning habitat, and the land behind it wasn't attractive to shorebirds.

"This is a globally important place for shorebirds," Ferrier said.

However, what's good for shorebirds isn't always popular with people who hunt ducks and geese. Some hunters complained about the agency's original proposal, and anglers weren't happy because the road atop the dike that's being removed leads to a boat launch.

Another point of contention was that letting bay waters come farther inland would drive elk onto neighboring private cranberry bogs, destroying the crops.

After the objections, the Fish and Wildlife Service amended its plans. The dike removal project was altered to provide more places for elk to spread out and for geese to graze. The final plan restores 621 acres of historical estuarine habitat, compared to the previous plan of flooding 749 acres.

Overall, hunters will gain opportunities, Ferrier said.

A year from now, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to open up about 1,300 acres of forest land near the dike for deer and elk hunting. The agency will provide five walk-in blinds for waterfowl hunters to replace ones being eliminated by dike removal. Though that is fewer than in the past, Ferrier said it should be enough to keep up with historical demand.

For anglers, a new car-top boat access will be built at Dohman Creek, replacing the one that will be lost.

Ferrier said she hasn't heard any complaints about the final version of the Conservation Plan, which comes to 978 pages. "Most folks are not having any issues with us," she said.

However, Herrera Beutler would still like more land kept as it is behind the dike, according to her spokesman, Casey Bowman.

"Jaime is still actively working to put the future of the refuge in the hands of the local community, and they have let Jaime know that they still strongly oppose flooding the refuge," Bowman said in an email.

The part of the dike near the cranberry bogs and fields favored by geese isn't scheduled for removal for at least two years.

Members of the Pacific County Commission couldn't be reached for comment.

In April, the crew started removing the dike in the refuge's Lewis Unit, which is near U.S. Highway 101. An excavator scoops up bucket-loads of dirt and dumps them in the low area it came from decades ago.

"One of the things we didn't expect was the amount of creosote under the dike," Ferrier said, hoisting a smelly timber that had been used to shore up the earthen structure.

By last week, the crew had reached Lewis Slough, an old channel into which bay water could flow, prompting Ferrier's celebration.

"This will get completely covered in winter storms," she predicted, as a few sandpapers chirped nearby. "This is like Christmas."

"These channels are going to be great habitat for juvenile fish, as well," she predicted.

Dike removal on the refuge's Porter Point unit, which juts north into Willapa Bay, will continue next construction season. The last phase of the dike project includes building a new interior dike in the Riekkola Unit near Long Beach, then removing the existing dike. That will be done when funding becomes available.

As the tidal water flows in, "it will not look very pretty for a little while," Ferrier said. "It takes about five years before you start to see the true salt marsh coming back."

Another controversial aspect of the refuge's plan hasn't changed. The agency still hopes to expand the refuge by 6,800 acres as money becomes available to buy land from willing sellers. Previously, Pacific County commissioners objected to the refuge taking timberlands out of production.

The refuge plan includes several other provisions:

New headquarters: The refuge plan calls for building a new refuge headquarters building and visitor center near the corner of Stackpole and Pioneer roads in Long Beach. The current headquarters on Highway 101 lacks potable water, so staffers have to draw water from the nearby creek, which is habitat for endangered chum salmon. "We run out of water quite often," Ferrier said.

The headquarters is about 10 miles from the Long Beach Peninsula. Ferrier said the agency would like it to be closer to where tourists flock to the beach. However, Ferrier said "we're a long way from having funding to be able to do that."

New trails: A new mile-long trail and another path about half a mile long are planned at the refuge. Ferrier said the agency hopes to start trail construction next year.

Butterfly habitat: The refuge will restore 33 acres of land for future reintroduction of the endangered Oregon silverspot butterfly.


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