McNeil Island becoming known for fish and wildlife, not just prison

If you’ve heard of McNeil Island, you are probably thinking of a former federal or state prison in South Puget Sound — not the rare and exclusive habitat that has won high praise from fish and wildlife biologists.

A derelict boat, estimated at 100 years old, is removed from the McNeil Island shoreline.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

I never realized that McNeil Island was such a gem until I learned about state restoration plans that could lead to near-pristine conditions for the island, located about seven miles southwest of Tacoma.

To be sure, more than 90 percent of the island’s 12-mile-long shoreline remains in a natural state, including large trees bending over the water . The restoration — the result of a longtime planning effort — will focus on discrete areas that have been highly degraded by human activities, some for more than a century.

The first project, completed this week, was the removal of shoreline armoring, creosote pilings and debris in six locations. Close to 1,000 tons of concrete was hauled away by barge along with 55 tons of scrap metal and more than 51 tons of pilings. A 557-foot bulkhead was pulled out along with a derelict boat.

“You can already see how much better the habitat appears with all that armoring and debris gone,” said Monica Shoemaker, restoration manager for the Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Restoration Program.

“I’m super excited about it,” she added, as she wrapped up the site work. “It takes a lot of planning and permitting, and when you work on something awhile, it is great to see it completed.”

Metal anti-submarine nets, added years ago to McNeil Island’s shoreline, were hauled away during the removal project.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

The concrete debris included what looked like an old building, demolished and tossed down the bank, Monica told me. What appeared to be ceramic tiles from a bathroom were scattered among the pieces of concrete. Metal debris included multiple layers of twisted and tangled anti-submarine netting, apparently brought to the site following World War II.

The accomplishment goes well beyond appearances. The shoreline is important rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, including threatened Chinook. Portions of the beach will provide excellent spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, according to Doris Small of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Much of the island contains moderate to low-bank waterfront, with about 25 percent identified as “feeder bluffs,” which provide sand and gravel to keep the beaches suitable for forage-fish spawning. Wetlands across the island provide habitat for a multitude of species.

Doris said the ongoing restoration effort has been the result of exceptional collaboration between DNR, WDFW and the state Department of Corrections.

McNeil Island served as the site a federal penitentiary from 1875 to 1979. It was the first federal prison in Washington Territory. In 1981, after the federal government decided it was too expensive to operate, the facility was leased by the state of Washington.

In 1984, the state Department of Corrections took ownership of the prison site with 1,324 acres used for buildings and infrastructure. The remainder of the island’s 4,413 acres was dedicated as a permanent wildlife sanctuary under control of WDFW. The deed also transferred ownership of Gertrude and Pitt islands to the state for conservation purposes.

The prison was upgraded during the 1990s with new buildings to serve up to 1,300 inmates. But in 2011 the prison was closed as a cost-cutting measure. Today, the facility houses about 300 inmates in a Special Commitment Center for sexually violent offenders who have been civilly committed.

McNeil, Gertrude and Pitt Islands remain closed to public access to protect breeding populations of wildlife. A 100-yard safety zone goes out into the water with warning signs for boaters.

In 2011, DNR established the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve, which edges up against Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and includes Anderson Island, McNeil Island and surrounding waters. The idea is to protect shoreline ecosystems in the reserve.

A feasibility report (PDF, 6.3 mb), developed by WDFW and DNR, includes a shoreline survey that identified 10 sites where debris removal would improve the nearshore habitat. Although contractors removed more material than originally estimated for the first six sites, bidding was favorable and costs were held to about $450,000, Monica said. Funding is from DNR’s aquatic restoration account.

The next project, to get underway in January, involves removal of a concrete boat launch, concrete debris and log pilings from the so-called Barge Landing Site at the southern tip of McNeil Island. Funding will come from an account that provides money from a pollution settlement with Asarco, a company that operated a Tacoma smelter that released toxic chemicals over a wide area.

Other projects on McNeil Island involve removing road embankments constructed across three estuaries along with work to restore natural functions. Estuaries provide rearing habitat for salmon and other aquatic species. State or federal restoration grants are needed to proceed with those projects. For ongoing information, check out DNR’s website about McNeil Island.

6 thoughts on “McNeil Island becoming known for fish and wildlife, not just prison

  1. Thanks as always for the good news, Chris. When you started the section with “The accomplishment goes well beyond appearances. ” I thought you were going to explain the connection between the debris removal and wildlife habitat, but I have to admit I’m still confused.

    I understand how removing creosote logs and restoring natural functions of estuaries would be good for wildlife, but I don’t understand the rest of the debris removal described here. Can’t some underwater and beach debris act as habitat for small fish and animals? I know from diving in the Sound that old wrecks often have the highest concentration of sea life.

    I get that this project makes the beach look more natural, but I worry that it is being done at the expense of wildlife, or at best not really helping wildlife.

    1. Conor,

      I put the question to Monica Shoemaker, a restoration manager for DNR who is quoted in the story above. Here is her response:

      “The project removed shoreline armoring/bulkheads that were blocking the natural processes of the feeder bluff. The debris and armoring can also prevent the natural processes of sediment transport. By removing the debris, these shorelines can now function naturally by allowing the feeder bluffs to move the materials from the bluffs onto the shoreline, and the beach materials can move around naturally without being blocked by various pieces of very large debris. These fine-grain materials from the feeder bluff are the type of sediments that are the preferred habitat for forage fish and migrating salmon.

      “The debris that was along these stretches of shoreline was scattered along large areas. The debris included small tiles, metal and brick all the way up to very large pieces of concrete and metal. These stretches of shoreline were covered in this material. Barnacles were attached to some of this debris, but the debris is covering shoreline that has the potential to become forage fish spawning beds. The debris fields are not the type of materials that forage fish would spawn in. Also, migrating juvenile salmon prefer shallow-water habitat with fine-grained materials and overhanging vegetation. Removing this debris provides better habitat for forage fish as well as migrating salmon.”

  2. This is good news to see McNeil Island is not being left derelict. It is obviously extremely important to ensure that it remains a nurturing marine and wildlife habitat. With this said, the island is an almost natural and untouched gem (on most of it) and I wonder if there are plans to create a park for the public to enjoy and share? It seems that other areas (not south Puget Sound) have similar parks (i.e. Blake Island) and the opportunity to do so on McNeil Island for the south South could be amazing.

  3. I grew up on McNeil island and it was a wonderful place to live. My father worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons & I lived there from 1959 until 1965. My family continued to live on the island until 1971. I know that there has been a lot of discourse with the state government and also the federal government about the island. I have to ask does it even make financial make sense to house 280 prisoners with 320 employees overseeing them (numbers are estimates only).
    I know this state / federal issue is a political football but why hasn’t the Washington state government granted a petition for McNeil Island becoming a State Park or even a National Park. I have to wonder why one of the most beautiful places on earth is housing the most horrific sexual predators when the American public could be able share and enjoy the island and the views of Mt Rainer and the Olympic Mountain Range from the island. Alcatraz is under the umbrella of the National Park Service and in no way as has as much to offer as McNeil island with it’s diverse beauty and rich history.
    I do applaud the clean up efforts whole heartedly!! Thank you DNR and WDFW for that.

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