OLYMPIA – Starting today, the 175-acre Headquarters Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area will be closed to public access as work crews begin clearing land for a major estuary-restoration project at the mouth of the Skagit River.
The closed area includes the public boat ramp and the dike-top trails along the Skagit River and Wiley Slough.
Lora Leschner, regional wildlife manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), said the department expects to reopen the Headquarters Unit to public access at the end of September.
“We had hoped to keep the boat launch and the inner dike trail open during construction, but there’s just too much heavy equipment involved,” Leschner said. “We don’t want to put visitors at risk.”
WDFW owns and manages the entire 16,708-acre Skagit Wildlife Area to preserve habitat for fish and wildlife, and provide a site for outdoor recreation. Leschner suggests that boaters use the ramp in Conway off Fir Island Road as an alternative while the Headquarters Unit is closed for work on the restoration project.
First proposed in 2002 by the Skagit Watershed Council, the Wiley Slough project is designed to restore 160 acres of estuarine salmon habitat that was diked and drained to create farmland in 1962. The federal salmon recovery plan for Puget Sound identifies the project as an important step toward restoring chinook stocks in the Skagit River.
Partners in the project include WDFW, the Skagit River System Cooperative, Seattle City Light and the Skagit Watershed Council, with funding from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
State and federal agencies are providing $3.8 million for the restoration work, which is scheduled for completion during the summer of 2009. Seattle City Light contributed another $150,000 to the project.
WDFW awarded the construction contract to Northwest Construction Inc. of Bellevue last week, after completing a competitive bidding process.
During the next three months, construction crews will work to construct a new “setback” dike further inland along the border of the wildlife area and install a new, larger tidegate farther upstream on Wiley Slough.
Next summer, the work crews will remove approximately 6,500 feet of other dikes and levees, allowing the tides and the river to reclaim the area south of the new setback dike.
“Our goal is to wrap up work each summer before the general hunting season begins,” Leschner said. “We recognize that hunters, hikers, birdwatchers and others have come to depend on this area for outdoor recreation.”
After recreational interests raised objections to the restoration project last year, WDFW Director Jeff Koenings directed department staff to work with those groups to find common ground.
To address concerns about lands lost to hunting, WDFW is working with a coalition of hunters, recreationists, farmers and other landowners to secure hunter access to private lands in the area. The 2008 Legislature provided $75,000 to support that effort.
In addition, the department agreed to improve the boat launch, maintain the nearby “island segment” for hunting and improve hiking trails in the Headquarters Unit of the wildlife area. Riparian vegetation will be planted to replace songbird habitat.
WDFW has already purchased 250 acres near Bayview on Padilla Bay that will eventually provide additional wildlife habitat and wildlife-viewing opportunities.
“We’ve worked with a lot of different groups to reach consensus on this project and move forward,” Koenings said. “That’s important, because this project is a milestone for salmon recovery on the Skagit River and throughout Puget Sound.”
For more information on the Wiley Slough restoration project, see WDFW’s report to the 2008 Legislature at http://www.goskagit.com/pdf/wiley_slough_wg_report.pdf. Questions can also be directed to the WDFW Region 4 Office at (425) 775-1311.