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Union River Estuary project revitalizes important wildlife habitat, creates public access

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Story and photos by Rich Carlson, Restoration Ecologist

USFWS Puget Sound Coastal Program

 At the turn of the 19th century, a 3,300-foot dike was constructed around the salt marsh wetlands of the Union River Estuary in Lynch Cove, near Belfair, Wash.  The property was used for cattle and hay production and the dike was meant to block tidal waters and create a pasture for farming. 

 The dike served that purpose for nearly 100 years before it was purchased by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in 2006.  The WDFW determined that restoring the historic estuary on the property would provide greatest benefit to wildlife. Today, the property is part of the WDFW’s Wildlife Area Program, which seeks to increase fish and wildlife production, and hunting/fishing opportunities for the public. 

 This project is located in one of the most important winter waterfowl areas in Hood Canal and South Puget Sound. The salt marsh is particularly attractive to large numbers of migratory birds and other wetland-dependent fish and wildlife species. Shorebirds and waterfowl seasonally concentrate along the shoreline and depend upon the estuary and the surrounding saltwater wetlands for feeding and resting areas.

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The project included a new trail over the wetlands, which opened to the public October 25, 2013.  The trail is an extension of the popular Theler Wetlands trail system, which stretches across two miles of Hood Canal shoreline.  Local schools will help monitor the estuary for the natural tidal processes that restore vegetation and attract fish wildlife to the area.  You are invited to come out and enjoy this estuary year round.  The best access is to park at Theler  Community Center, and walk east on the marked trail.

 

The successful transformation came about through work by many our partners. WDFW worked with the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group (HCSEG) to secure a design grant from the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board in 2011.

This grant enabled WDFW and HCSEG to form a project design group.  The design group consisted of WDFW, USFWS, the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, North Mason School District, Theler Wetlands Board, Skokomish Indian Tribe, and the Hood Canal Coordinating Council.  Public outreach was a priority for the design group, which used public meetings, press releases, and meetings with elected officials to solicit input on the project.

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The design committee developed and reviewed 13 design alternatives incorporating public comments into the designs.  The final design was considered the best balance of habitat benefits for fish and wildlife, education and recreation opportunities for people.

 The final design called for breaching the dike in two locations and restoring 31 acres of estuarine marsh, including a tidal channel network.  The first and largest breach is 300 feet wide and connects the western end of the estuary with Hood Canal.  The second breach, 100 feet wide, is on the northern side and connects the estuary with the Union River.  Both breaches are spanned by concrete bridges to provide public access and are wheelchair accessible.

 The majority of the project was funded with $1.8 million from the USFWS  National Coastal Wetlands Grant program. This grant was matched with nearly $300,000 from Washington State.

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