Category Archives: Land use

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.

Some salmon take the low road to get back home to spawn

“Why did the salmon cross the road?”

OK, I’ll admit that I used this line once in a story many years ago when I first observed the Skokomish River overflowing its banks. I was amazed at the number of chum salmon swimming through farm fields and across pavement in the Skokomish Valley as they tried to get back to their spawning grounds.

Despite extensive work in the Skokomish River estuary, the waters still back up and fish still swim across roads during heavy rains and floods.

I was not the first to bend the old joke to ask, “Why did the salmon cross the road?” And I was definitely not the last, as two new videos went viral the past few days, resulting in news reports across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people must have been surprised to see Puget Sound salmon skittering across the pavement in a most unnatural way.

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Amusing Monday: Earth becomes art when viewed from satellites

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have created an “Earth-as-Art” collection of brilliant images from space, as seen from Landsat satellites.

Icy Vortex // Image: USGS, Landsat program

Some pictures of Earth formations are reminiscent of actual paintings; some include familiar objects; and some are like abstract creations. Some show the actual colors of earth, sea and sky, while some of the colors are created with filters to highlight natural colors or even to capture light beyond the visible spectrum.

These images remind me of the LIDAR images created by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which I called works of art in a blog post nearly a year ago. See Water Ways, Dec. 11, 2017. I included images of Puget Sound among some satellite photos posted previously. See Water Ways, Sept.11, 2017.

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Environmental volunteers needed in Kitsap County

I thought I would offer a quick note on some volunteer opportunities in Kitsap County, based on an email from WSU Kitsap County Extension. By the way, Kitsap and King county governments are among the best in connecting people with opportunities where they can spent quality time together while helping their community. Check out Kitsap County Volunteer Services and King County volunteer calendar and opportunities.

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Legal settlement could help protect salmon eggs incubating in gravel

Washington Department of Ecology has agreed to take steps to protect wild salmon eggs incubating in gravel by developing entirely new water-quality standards to control fine sediment going into streams.

The new standards, yet to be developed, could ultimately limit silty runoff coming from logging operations, housing construction and other operations that can affect water quality. The idea is maintain adequate oxygen to salmon eggs, thus increasing the rate of survival as well as the health of the young fish.

The legal agreement with Ecology grew out of a lawsuit brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. NWEA claimed that the EPA had failed to consult with natural resource agencies while reviewing changes in state water-quality standards, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

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Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Map of sea level predictions can assist waterfront owners

A sophisticated analysis of sea-level rise in Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast offers shoreline residents and land-use planners a new map-based tool to assess potential flood hazards for the coming years.

Click on map to access online interactive map
Map: Washington Coastal Hazards Resilience Network

Sea-level rise depends on two factors: how fast the oceans rise and the rate of vertical land shifts. Uplift, such as what occurs along the Washington Coast, slows the rate of sea-level rise relative to waterfront property. Subsidence, which occurs in Central Puget Sound, results in elevated tides sooner than in stable or uplifting areas. One map on this page shows the measured uplift and subsidence and another shows the uncertainty in that measurement.

Ian Miller, a coastal hazards specialist at Washington Sea Grant, has worked on studies that describe sea-level rise in Island County and on the Olympic Peninsula. The new report, titled “Projected Sea Level Rise for Washington State” (PDF 10.4 mb) goes well beyond what he and his colleagues have done before. It takes a more detailed look at where the land is uplifting and subsiding, according to Miller, the lead author on the new report that involves work by scientists at Sea Grant and the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

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Amusing Monday: Get out and enjoy the cool rivers in our region

Given the heat wave of the past few days, I realize that I should have been floating down a river. I’m envisioning cool water splashing people on a boat as the sun beats down from above. I recall feelings of calm while traveling across flat water, followed by the invigoration of roiling rapids.

To get you started, Seattle Magazine offers a few suggestions, and there are numerous rafting companies advertising online to help you tackle more challenging waters.

This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I’ve been watching some videos that I would like to share. The law was designed to preserve the free-flowing nature of rivers that contain outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.

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Is there any hope for coming together on climate change?

Not long ago, I was having dinner at a restaurant with some friends. We were talking about environmental concerns when someone mentioned climate change.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” said the man seated to my right. “We are actually going into the next ice age, and the weather is getting colder.”

Stunned, all I could say was, “I don’t even know how to respond to that.” I was not in the mood to give a scientific lecture, nor did it seem like the time to engage in an angry debate — so I changed the subject.

Ever since, I’ve been wondering what I should have said. I’m sure I could have discussed whether humans are to blame for the fact that temperatures are becoming more extreme. For example, the average annual temperature has exceeded the 138-year average every year since 1976. (See NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.) The evidence of human influence is pretty compelling, but even if you find fault with the data or want to blame natural causes, the warming trend is clear.

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Amusing Monday: Tying gentrification to climate change with humor

“The North Pole,” a seven-part online political comedy, provides some amusing social connections between climate change and the gentrification of aging neighborhoods.

Set in North Oakland, Calif., the story revolves around close friends who have grown up in the area and find themselves struggling against landlords, corporate greed and ultimately their own social consciences. The setting could just as easily have been Seattle or any other city in which low-income housing is being displaced by condos and cute corner malls.

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