Opinion Pieces

Chinook Observer Guest Column: Congresswoman urges public to continue voicing views on refuge

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Vancouver, July 5, 2011 | comments
The Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful place, enjoyed for years by Pacific County residents and visitors alike. Yet just a few months ago, a plan to permanently alter the refuge was nearly set in motion — and most folks within Pacific County knew nothing about it.
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The Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful place, enjoyed for years by Pacific County residents and visitors alike. Yet just a few months ago, a plan to permanently alter the refuge was nearly set in motion — and most folks within Pacific County knew nothing about it.

I am pleased to report that since that time, we have been able to insert some transparency into the process. Still, the fate of the Willapa refuge hangs in the balance, and I am troubled over the lack of responsiveness from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to the varied and multiple concerns from the public.

Over the course of the last few months there has been great debate about the future of the refuge, particularly regarding the management alternatives that the USFWS has put forth. Two of the plans considered by the USFWS, alternatives 2 and 3, would drastically change the character of the refuge by breaching the dikes and permanently altering hundreds of acres of wildlife refuge.

When I organized a public  session in Ilwaco in March, the hundreds of local residents who showed up made it exceedingly clear that the people of Pacific County care deeply about the Refuge and the values it represents. 

It is telling that many Pacific County residents were unaware that new management alternatives were even being considered until news articles ran at the beginning of the year. The public sense that the process wasn’t being completed in an open and transparent manner was heightened when we learned that the agency had secured funding and applied for permits for dike removal through the Willapa Bay Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group, prior to seeking public input. 

Residents rightly questioned why the agency would take action to carry out the irreversible steps of alternatives 2 and 3 before they sought public comment. Given the passionate opinions expressed from Pacific County residents, and given the history of the refuge, it is concerning that the actions of the USFWS signaled that this government agency was ready to move ahead with its preferred alternative — regardless of the will of the people.

The refuge was formed in 1937 for the express purpose of providing habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and migratory bird populations. Our national refuges are funded in part through Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, commonly known as “Duck Stamps,” and in fact, 52.4 percent of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge was purchased with these funds. Thanks in large part to a responsible community of sportsmen, we have the incredible gem that our refuge is today.

One challenge with USFWS’s preferred alternative is that the removal of the Lewis, Porter Point and Riekkola dikes would destroy fresh water wetlands and foraging habitat that is used by tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl, including threatened dusky Canada geese. I have heard many concerns that the USFWS’s actions show total disregard for the refuge’s original purpose and those who paid to preserve it.

In addition to the proposed irreversible environmental impacts, a critical challenge in this time when budgets are stretched to the last penny is the cost of alternatives 2 and 3. Demolition costs for levee removals, the price of new office buildings, a visitor center, land acquisition, and other costs within the proposed plan pose a considerable extra burden on taxpayers.

The good news is that the residents were willing to make their voices heard once they were informed of the agency’s intentions. To date, the people have won some very important victories. I joined Sen. Hatfield and Reps. Blake and Takko in asking the Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board to refrain from funding the dike removal. I was thrilled the board agreed with our request. In addition, just recently I was informed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has cancelled the permit application for the dike removal under the Bear River Estuary Restoration Plan. 

Despite these small victories, the work is far from done. Please continue to let your voices be heard. Please email, phone and write to my office and the USFWS and share your comments and concerns. This is an issue of great importance to our region.

The question of refuge management is not one we can afford to get wrong, nor should permanent changes be made without strong support from the community. 

To read this article online at the Chinook Observer, please click here.
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