A fiery end, a hopeful beginning

MUD BAY: Training fire clears way for habitat restoration on estuary

May 17, 2011 


    The McLane Fire Department plans to burn another structure next to Mud Bay at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Chief Steve North said. A viewing area will be set up for the public near Mud Bay Road. Drivers are asked not to stop on nearby U.S. Highway 101.

The fiery end of two buildings overlooking Mud Bay on Monday marked a new beginning.

The McLane Fire Department torched the buildings in a training exercise at the request of the Capitol Land Trust as a part of its continuing effort to restore the Eld Inlet estuary.

That wasn’t the fire’s only benefit. For McLane Fire Chief Steve North, it was an opportunity – about one or two per year – to train on a fire at an actual house. Thirty firefighters from McLane and the North Thurston Regional Fire Authority were on hand, he said.

Removing the man-made structures just south of U.S. Highway 101 is designed to help restore habitat and increase the productivity of one of the state’s last natural estuaries.

“This is something that we’ve been working on for 15 years,” said Eric Erler, executive director of the Capitol Land Trust, an Olympia-based conservation group. “This is just the current place of an ongoing effort.”

The property was deeded to the land trust from the late Marjorie Randall, who donated a conservation easement in 1997 for her 7-acre property and lived there until her recent death. In 2003, the organization removed more than 400 tires that were used as a shoreline bulkhead.

The property was among the first area the land trust either acquired or placed an easement on to protect habitat.

“This is just a microcosm of all the work we do, and most of our work is on a larger scale,” Erler said.

There are now six miles of shoreline preserved, 600 acres of uplands saved in about 20 individual sites. The group has partnered with 30 to 40 organizations to make it happen, Erler said.

Most significantly for Eld Inlet, the group bought 55 acres adjacent to Mud Bay on the south side of U.S. 101. The property is next to 203 acres of tidelands and uplands and 3.5 miles of marine shoreline protected in perpetuity thanks to an easement the land trust bought from former Secretary of State Ralph Munro in 2006.

The Capitol Land Trust protects lands in two ways – buying land or buying a conservation easement, protecting the land from development. The group works with land owners to craft each easement on a case-by-case basis – some are more restrictive than others. For example, an easement may allow farming, Erler said. Landowners get a tax break, and the land is protected for future generations.

Saving and restoring estuaries tops the list of the organization’s mission, Erler said, which also includes protecting riparian, wetland, and select upland habitats.

“Seventy-five percent of this coastal habitat is gone,” he said. Unlike so many other areas in coastal Washington, the Mud Bay estuary is largely intact.

As Erler spoke, a bald eagle flew overhead. Other visitors include great blue herons, salmon and thousands of migratory birds.

The land trust isn’t finished, even after the old Randall property is restored. The group is working with the city of Olympia to remove a series of old fish hatchery ponds on the city’s adjacent Allison Springs property, one of the city’s water sources. Removing the man-made culverts and berms will allow the tides to infiltrate further, Erler said, restoring more habitat where saltwater meets freshwater.

“We’re going to make more fish food,” said Rich Carlson of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, who watched the burn Monday.

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869

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