Nature Conservancy purchases coastal rain forest land; now owns 7,400 acres in the watershed

Friday, March 28, 2003
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

West Coast - One of the last untouched parcels of coastal temperate rain forest is now in the hands of the Nature Conservancy, the environmental organization announced Thursday.

In securing the entire Ellsworth Creek watershed, the conservancy's local forest manager said the organization now will try to "hasten" the development of old-growth forest on the previously clearcut slopes above the 338 acres of untouched wilderness. The conservancy spent $10.25 million to add 5,600 acres to the 1,800 acres it already owned in the watershed. The deal, with Pacific West Timber Co., closed in mid-February.

Forest manager Tom Kollasch said part of the acreage will be selectively logged, to help offset monocultures of commercially valuable hemlock and Douglas fir planted after previous clearcuts.

"They tend to develop unnaturally because they don't have the balance of species, over time, that they ordinarily would have had," Kollasch said.

Left alone, coastal forests are shaped over time by periodic wind storms and catastrophic forest fires. Classic old growth generally includes a multistory canopy of various tree species and ages. The pocket of old growth bordering Ellsworth Creek includes Sitka spruce and western red cedars, some as thick as 20 feet across dating back 800 years.

Intact parcels of old-growth coastal rain forests are rare, due to the high commercial value of the timber and relatively easy access.

Leslie Brown, the conservancy's spokeswoman in Seattle, said the Nature Conservancy's purchase makes Ellsworth the only fully protected coastal watershed between the Canadian border and the central Oregon coast. She described the temperate rain forest along the creek as "fantastic remnant old growth," but it's part of only one-half of 1 percent of the old growth that remains in the Willapa Hills.

"It's a rich part of our natural heritage," Brown said, "and, frankly, a part of our natural heritage that is nearly gone."

The watershed is about 10 miles east of the Long Beach Peninsula. Brown said the creek, which drains to the Naselle River, provides prime salmon habitat. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has counted as many as 5,000 chum salmon spawning in a 1.2-mile stretch in the fall, she said.

In the past, the conservancy might have focused only on protecting the 338 acres of old growth.

But Brown said the organization has shifted to a broader outlook, reflected by its purchase of the whole valley that drains into Ellsworth Creek. The conservancy will help to conserve about 350 acres of biologically rich wetlands, a critical habitat that has dwindled in Washington due to diking and dredging.

"We're not protecting just the remnants that are pristine, but trying to restore ecological function and processes," Brown said. "Now we have a chance to use various forestry prescriptions and other work to restore the watershed."

The conservancy now owns all but 120 acres of the watershed. Of the total conservancy property, the organization intends to transfer 240 acres to the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge by the end of the year. Brown said the conservancy will recover its cost but make no profit on the parcel, which sits within the refuge's boundary.


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