Samish Island, Stillaguamish delta salt marsh projects get federal funding | Environment

From the shores of Samish Island in northwest Skagit County to the Stillaguamish River delta to the south, coastal wetland projects recently secured grant funding.

Out of $3.6 million awarded in February to projects in Washington through the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program, $1 million will go toward a project led by the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians along Port Susan Bay and $875,000 for a project led by the Skagit Land Trust between Samish and Padilla bays.

Wetlands along the state’s coast and Puget Sound shorelines, including in estuaries where saltwater and freshwater meet, are some of the most diverse, productive ecosystems on the planet, according to the state Department of Ecology. They also help limit flooding, filter pollutants from the water and absorb greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Protecting and restoring these wetlands — many of which were previously lost to development, diking and shoreline armoring — can help iconic and imperiled salmon, endangered Southern Resident orcas and countless other species, from crabs to birds.

The National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program gives grants of up to $1 million each year to projects along the coasts and Great Lakes, as well as in U.S. territories, according to the program web page. The funding comes from taxes and import fees on the sale of recreational fishing equipment.

This year, $27 million was awarded to projects in 14 states, according to a Feb. 24 news release.

“Coastal wetland habitat conservation is critical to ensure that important habitat, wildlife and coastal communities continue to thrive for future generations,” the release states. “These grants will have wide-reaching benefits for local economies, people and wildlife — boosting coastal resilience, reducing flood risk, stabilizing shorelines and protecting natural ecosystems.”

Both the Skagit Land Trust and Stillaguamish tribe projects will — if additional funding and sale agreements are secured — build off projects completed in the past.

Both groups are currently working to purchase shoreline properties. Both also envision restoration that could involve moving back dikes in future years to restore the reach of high tides to more of the landscape.

Along much of northwest Washington’s rivers and marine shores, dikes were built 100 years ago or more to make way for homesteading, farming and more intensive development.

Along a sliver of shoreline between the Port Susan Bay Preserve and Leque Island, wildlife flourishes among the sand, driftwood, grasses and shrubs.

Walking along a dike that protects farmland to the east, Jason Griffith, acting environmental program manager for the Stillaguamish tribe, points out a northern harrier gliding in the air while a vole scurries underfoot and a songbird issues its call.

For years the tribe has been working toward adding to this wildlife-rich scene.

With the $1 million grant, the tribe is able to take the next steps toward acquiring 537 acres of surrounding land. With the help of earlier funding from the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program, the tribe purchased 248 acres in the area.

Griffith said once the full 785 acres is under tribal ownership, planning will begin for moving back existing dikes.

“The goal is to return tidal wetlands to a larger footprint in the Stillaguamish delta,” Griffith said.



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Jason Griffith, acting environmental program manager for the Stillaguamish tribe, looks out toward Port Susan Bay on March 4 from property the tribe is working to buy.



A large driver of that goal is wildlife not as easily seen as the many birds in flight. The project has more to do with young salmon in the river and bay.

“Historically that habitat supported 10 times the salmon we see today,” Griffith said of the wetlands before the dikes. “Now we have a fraction of those salmon populations.”

When it comes to threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon, less estuary habitat where young fish rest, eat and grow before migrating out to sea has been deemed a major factor in limiting population growth.

Griffith said estuary restoration done to the north of the land being sought now, at a site the tribe calls ‘zis a ba,’ showed that fish do come back — and quickly.

“One of the cool things about wetland restoration is the speed at which the marsh comes back, and because the food comes back so quick, the fish come back,” he said. “Zis a ba was a spinach field in 2017. In October we took the dikes down, and by 2019 it was hard to tell it was a restoration project.”

Genetic testing of salmon that use habitat in and around Port Susan Bay has shown they come not only from the Stillaguamish River, but from the Skagit and other rivers that are part of the Whidbey Basin portion of Puget Sound.

“Tidal restoration like this is serving as a net lift for the whole Whidbey Basin, which is good for recovery (of Puget Sound chinook),” Griffith said.

Restoration is about more than the fish themselves, too.

More fish means more food for wildlife — such as the great blue heron that took flight while Griffith walked the site, and endangered Southern Resident orcas that eat the fish at sea. More fish can also mean more fishing opportunities, and more habitat can also mean more recreation space.

AN ISLAND, TWO BAYS & A SLOUGH

Creating space for recreation and wildlife is also a goal of the Skagit Land Trust, which is seeking to purchase about 50 acres at the neck-like entrance to Samish Island. The property includes shoreline along both Samish and Padilla bays, and the purchase would about double the acreage on Samish Island owned by the land trust.

“It’s this amazing property,” Skagit Land Trust Conservation Project Manager Kari Odden said as bald eagles took flight in the distance and a red-winged blackbird sang from its perch in a shrub. “But I think what makes it really rare is what it used to be.”

Siwash Slough, once a strong and tidally influenced connection between the bays, today acts basically as a freshwater ditch cutting through the property.



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The Siwash Slough stretches across property the Skagit Land Trust is working to purchase between Padilla Bay and Samish Bay.



“The thin ribbon of Siwash Slough, which historically snaked from one bay to the other, is a faint echo of the dynamic shoreline that used to exist here,” the land trust states on its website.

Owning more land on Samish Island would enable the land trust to consider long-term restoration of salt marsh, with particular attention paid to the slough.



SLT Samish Island Map

The Skagit Land Trust is campaigning to protect the land outlined in yellow, in order to give Siwash Slough a less restricted path between Samish and Padilla bays. 



“It is a diminishing type of habitat that we need to restore,” land trust Executive Director Molly Doran said.

Roger Fuller of the {span}Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve{/span} said restoring the tides to Siwash Slough could mean major benefits for marine wildlife.

“This would be a very significant restoration project in terms of the amount of marsh that we could restore … and those types of marsh are the base of the food web,” he said. “These kind of habitats are few and far between, and the potential of restoring something like this is really exciting.”

Before restoration can be considered, though, the land trust needs to secure funding to buy the land, which the owner is prepared to sell.

The $875,000 federal grant is a start. The nonprofit land trust is now asking the community to help seal the deal.

This week it launched its Samish Island Entrance Campaign with the goal of raising $275,000 by April 30. A group of land trust members has committed to providing a $50,000 match to help reach the goal, and the land trust has also applied for a state grant.

While introducing the fund-raising campaign over Zoom on Monday, the land trust’s Laura Hartner said donations were already coming in.

“We’re in a really good standing to make this project a reality,” she said.

The project has support from the Samish Indian Nation, the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Skagit County, the Skagit Audubon Society and residents near the property.

Conservation of the property would preserve habitat frequented by a wide variety of birds including great blue herons that once nested in a rookery nearby, as well as other animals including otters to deer.



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A heron flies Thursday over property the Skagit Land Trust hopes to purchase between Padilla Bay and Samish Bay.



It would also enable the land trust to allow public access to another quarter-mile of Samish Island beach, as well as open more of the island to outdoor education and research programs.