Caring for Willapa Bay means caring for the waterways that flow directly into it.
The second-largest estuary on the West Coast, Willapa Bay is one of those places whose wildness and beauty define the Pacific Northwest. It encompasses some 260 square miles of water; the coastal forests, wetlands, mudflats, dunes, beaches and grasslands that surround the bay support hundreds of thousands of birds. Threatened species, including green sturgeon and marbled murrelet, are found here. Fall and spring Chinook, chum, winter and summer steelhead, coho and cutthroat trout all use the bay, as well as the streams and rivers that feed it.
Because the area supports a thriving diversity of wildlife (as well as an oyster industry), Columbia Land Trust has identified Willapa Bay as a conservation priority and has acquired properties on the west side of the bay.
So we were excited in July of last year when we acquired 81 acres along the North Nemah River, whose waters flow directly into the bay. The newly conserved property is Columbia Land Trust’s first on the east side and includes 1,000 feet of riverfront. Streams and channels wind through its lower elevations—just the kind of water-rich habitat fish and waterfowl need.
The land’s previous owner, Hancock Timberland, historically had logged the forests on the property’s upper elevations. One of our goals in this area is to grow a multi-storied, complex forest with a rich understory of native plants, which will be managed as wildlife habitat. Healthy upland forests are key to the health of estuary ecosystems: They slow the flow of water during periods of high rain, keep sediment from overwhelming rivers, and add the branches and downed trees to waterways that salmon need for protection.
Along the Nemah, there is even a 12-acre parcel of mature, intact Sitka spruce swamp, a habitat type that has declined by an estimated 70 percent in the lower Columbia River Estuary. Especially when connected to other large areas of mature forest, spruce swamp is used by bald eagles and cavity-nesting birds.
The North Nemah River property also complements a growing network of lands around Willapa Bay that have been conserved by groups such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Forterra, Washington State Parks and the Nature Conservancy. Willapa Bay covers such a vast area that only the efforts of many groups working together will ensure the bay remains one of the country’s most pristine. —Nadia Gardner