Nisqually refuge proposal: Double size, remove dikes - Expansion, restoration would require changes in recreational use

Tracy McCarthey, a biologist for the state of Arizona, spends a foggy Monday afternoon birdwatching in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. A draft management plan has targeted the area for possible land expansion and potential breaching of the refuge dike. McCarthey, who is in the area visiting family for the holidays, said she was impressed with the refuge's easy access and diverse wildlife. Steve Bloom/The Olympian


NISQUALLY VALLEY, WA-- A plan to nearly double the size of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and remove dikes that keep Puget Sound at bay is ready for public review.
The way the federal sanctuary at the mouth of the Nisqually River is used by hundreds of fish and wildlife species and about 100,000 birdwatchers, hunters and hikers per year could change dramatically under the plan for the 2,925-acre refuge.

About 700 acres of pasture and freshwater wetlands would be converted to saltwater marsh under the preferred alternative.

It means taking out the nearly 100-year-old Brown Farm Dike and eliminating the 5.5-mile looped trail for the sake of salmon and other saltwater-dependent species.

If accomplished, it would boost the ecologically rich saltwater marsh areas in South Puget Sound by 46 percent, said Jean Takekawa, who manages the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"It's a chance to shape a new vision for the refuge," she said.

In some ways, it's a back-to-the-future vision, allowing the tides to flow in and out across the Nisqually Delta as they did before white settlers arrived in the region.

About 300 acres of diked land would be maintained, much of it in freshwater wetland, shrub and grass habitat to support waterfowl, songbirds, mammals and other species that inhabit the refuge.

"Restoring a significant amount of freshwater estuary is something we support," said George Walter, environmental program manager for the Nisqually Indian Tribe. "It's an important part of salmon restoration in the Nisqually River watershed."

The tribe owns 325 acres within the existing refuge boundaries and is taking out pasture dikes there as well to provide more feeding and rearing areas for salmon.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife owns another 622 acres within the current boundaries of the refuge.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in concert with the state, tribes and other parties, has been working on a new plan for the refuge since 1997. The proposal to breach the dike system stemmed from the 1996 floods that inundated the refuge. As a result of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake and flooding during the past 25 years, the dike network has been damaged at least five times.

Private property

The draft management plan for the refuge also calls for the possible expansion of the refuge boundaries to encompass another 3,479 acres owned by 200 property owners.

Much of the property is prime agricultural land south of Interstate 5.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to me," said Herman Schols, a former Nisqually Valley dairy farmer who now runs a few head of beef cattle and hosts an organic vegetable farm on his 124 acres of farmland next to McAllister Creek. "I don't think I'd go for it."

Takekawa said the refuge would only expand as it finds willing sellers and Congress makes funds available for land purchases.

"It offers landowners another option they haven't had before," she said.

Public use of the refuge would see some changes under the preferred alternative.

While about two miles of the looped trail would be lost to dike removal, a new boardwalk along McAllister Creek and a new 2.5-mile loop trail on the east side of the Nisqually River are envisioned.

The goal would be to provide public access to the various refuge habitats, including the new estuary area, Takekawa said.

Duck hunting

The comprehensive conservation plan also tackles the controversial topic of duck hunting on refuge lands.

Up to 1,200 hunter trips are logged at the Nisqually Delta every hunting season.

The refuge, created in 1974, has never been formally open to waterfowl hunting. But duck hunting is allowed on three state Department of Fish and Wildlife parcels inside the refuge.

The poorly marked property boundaries have led to hunting on the refuge property.

"We're trying to respect the tradition of hunting on the Nisqually Delta," Takekawa said.

Dick Jensen, 64, has hunted ducks around the mouth of the Nisqually River since he was a child.

He was glad to see that the preferred alternative does not restrict hunting to certain days of the week or certain daylight hours.

"The hunting is tied to the tides, and the tides change," he said.

He's not sure what to make of the plan to restore the estuary area at an estimated cost of $2.4 million.

"The ducks need the freshwater, too," he said.

John Dodge covers the environment and energy for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or by e-mail at

What's next
The public can weigh in on proposed changes at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge during a meeting from 3 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at the refuge, 100 Brown Farm Road.


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