With golf out of the way, habitat can be restored

jdodge@theolympian.comJune 3, 2014 

An impressive array of partners will assemble at the old Bayshore Golf Course on Oakland Bay northeast of Shelton on Tuesday to celebrate the purchase of some highly touted Puget Sound nearshore habitat.

The nine-hole golf course, which opened in 1948, closed for good last December, paving the way for a future void of golf, but filled with opportunities to restore 74 acres at the mouth of Johns Creek for the benefit of salmon and other fish and wildlife.

The $2.3 million acquisition had been in the works for 13 years, ever since the Capitol Land Trust and Squaxin Island Tribe started talking about it, said former Capitol Land Trust executive director Eric Erler.

The project plays a key role in efforts to restore the health of north Oakland Bay and its freshwater tributaries, including Johns, Malaney, Deer and Cranberry creeks. With this purchase, nearly 325 acres of north Oakland Bay uplands and shoreline have been protected by the land trust and its partners through three separate purchases since 2004.

Conservation of Oakland Bay uplands and saltwater marshes benefits water quality, recreational use of the bay and shellfish farming. It also preserves an area of extreme importance to the tribe.

For instance, the mouth of Johns Creek is the site of what was once one of the tribe’s largest longhouses and villages.

“We have always thought of this place as special,” said Andy Whitener, the Squaxin Island tribe’s natural resources director. “Our people lived there for thousands of years, subsisting on the fish, shellfish and wildlife that were always available.”

But in recent decades, the native shellfish and salmon resources in the bay have dwindled, damaging the tribal culture, economy and treaty rights. “Making sure Oakland Bay is healthy is one of the most important things we can do to protect our way of life,” Whitener said.

A 2013 state Department of Fish and wildlife assessment of valuable fish and wildlife habitats in South Puget Sound ranked north Oakland Bay on par with the Nisqually Delta and Kennedy Creek.

One of the conditions of the sale was retirement of the water rights tied to the golf course. This means stream flows near the mouth of the creek will improve, providing more water for coho and summer spawning chum salmon, noted Scott Steltzner, salmon biologist for the Squaxin Island Tribe. Currently, Johns Creek does not meet minimum low flow standards set by the state Department of Ecology.

The sale of the golf course property had been rumored for years. It fell victim to the economic recession and struggled to compete with all the new golf courses in the South Puget Sound region.

The property includes 47 acres of golf course, 27 acres of undeveloped salt marsh and mudflats and 4,000 feet of marine shoreline. A habitat restoration project still in the planning stages calls for removal of a 1,400-foot-long dike, which will convert about 10 acres of the former golf course into an intertidal zone.

Mason County zoning could have allowed residential and commercial development of the site, if the conservation group had been the successful purchaser.

Juvenile salmon call the Oakland Bay mudflats and salt marshes home, including Puget Sound chinook and winter steelhead listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. More than 100 migratory and resident species are found in Oakland Bay, including loons, great egrets, shorebirds and pigeon guillemots.

The golf course fairways and greens will be planted with native trees and shrubs and the six-acre Johns Creek riparian corridor will be widened and planted with native vegetations.

The long-range plan will allow for some passive recreation, including bird-watching, said land trust conservation program manager Laurence Reeves. But the salt marsh will be off limits to people.

The bulk of the funding for project acquisition and restoration came from state and federal grants, along with $75,000 from the tribe and a stewardship endowment of $58,000 provided by the Shelton Bayshore Golf Co.

Nearly 25 project partners and financial supporters will gather at the property at 10 a.m. Tuesday for talks and a guided tour. The public is invited to attend. The address is 3800 E. State Route 3, Shelton.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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