Habitat “restoration” scheme likely to hurt more than help
Small fish were jumping by the dozens in the shallows tonight at Hidden Beach, near Greenbank, Washington.
Speakers from Northwest Straits and the Island County Marine Resources Committee with alphabet soup behind their names had just alleged only minutes before, to about 50 attendees at an informational meeting held at the nearby Greenbank Farm historical and ecological center, that small fish cannot survive at Hidden Beach unless an extremely disruptive and expensive “beach restoration” project is undertaken.
In a time when environmental protection and habitat repair projects are increasingly jeopardized by economically motivated political opposition, from the White House on down, environmentally sensitized and animal-aware people might imagine, hope, and pray that any proposal advanced in the name of habitat improvement might be well grounded in the science of the specific locale.
In a time when the budgets for any sort of governmentally funded environmental work have been cut not just into the bone, but to the point of amputating habitat protection as a priority, one might expect any environmental proposal to be planned so as to get the maximum possible return from the investment.
Half-baked schemes rationalized with generalities
People walking into any given community to promote a potentially disruptive and costly habitat restoration scheme, one might theorize, should begin with a thorough understanding of how the animals, plants, winds, waves, and other natural forces interact in that particular location.
Would-be habitat rebuilders should not just waltz in from elsewhere to try to sell longtime local residents on endorsing––and ultimately helping to fund––half-baked schemes rationalized with generalities borrowed from entirely different habitats many miles away, having small chance of actually accomplishing any of the stated goals, or doing much else beyond perpetuating employment for the planners.
Hidden Beach, though few ANIMALS 24-7 readers have actually seen it in person, is a familiar location to many, mentioned often in our coverage of orcas, grey whales, salmon, crustaceans, and global warming, featured in our first-hand accounts of rescuing Elvis the eagle and Ollie the great horned owl, and the site of many of Beth’s wildlife photos, including of Sydney the seal, a local character who has developed something of an online fan club.
We visit Hidden Beach almost every day to walk, watch the shoreline wildlife, and appreciate the seasonal habitat changes.
The Hidden Beach “restoration” project would consist primarily of removing perhaps two dozen century-plus-year-old pilings, several dozen more dating to the mid-1960s, and some large rocks from the Hidden Beach waterfront.
The pilings are a minor source of creosote in the Saratoga Passage. Creosote is a tarry substance, toxic to fish, historically used as a wood preservative. Originating from carbon deposits, creosote is familiar and accursed to anyone who has ever heated with wood or coal and has consequently had to clean it out of stovepipes at frequent intervals.
The major source of creosote in the Saratoga Passage is soot and ash from forest fires burning elsewhere in Washington and British Columbia, which has in recent years routinely darkened the sky and water toward the end of each summer.
Some of the large rocks were dumped by humans decades ago.
Most of the rocks, however, are igneous glacial erratics, formed by the volcanoes that built the Olympic and Cascades mountain chains, placed by nature during the Ice Ages, inundated by sand, and then exposed by shoreline erosion. The rocks have no toxic effect whatever.
We favor authentic wildlife habitat restoration
As a general rule, Beth and I favor wildlife habitat restoration. We have in fact restored our own almost-an-acre to accommodate nearly every bird and terrestrial mammal native to Whidbey Island, either as full-time or transient users, and have photographed dozens of species from our windows and porch.
Beth and I have no objection, in theory, to removing old pilings, rocks doing some sort of actual harm, or any other genuine obstacle to wildlife use.
We are opposed, however, to boondoggles, proposed and advanced by people who have no authentic ecological understanding of the specific habitats they propose to alter. The Hidden Beach “restoration” project is in that category.
For instance, we were told this evening by the alleged visiting experts that the Hidden Beach habitat is “poor,” with a slide on screen showing the beach, littered with more driftwood than any other location visible from the Hidden Beach parking lot even with very powerful binoculars giving a view of miles, and then were told, not five minutes later, that one purpose of the project is to encourage accumulation of driftwood.
We were told that the sand and sediment at Hidden Beach comes primarily from Holmes Harbor, to the south, when any frequent visitor with eyes can see that the sea wall protecting the Hidden Beach portion of the Beachcombers development obstructs that source, while the eroding cliffs just to the north continually replenish the sand and sediment in the Hidden Beach cove (where we found Elvis the eagle), and deposit fallen trees which eventually become driftwood, typically breaking loose, drifting south with the tides, and snagging behind the pilings at Hidden Beach.
We were told that the proposed Hidden Beach “restoration” will benefit fishing, hunting, clamming, and crabbing, when scarcely anywhere else on Whidbey Island is more intensively mobbed by clammers, crabbers, and duck hunters, in particular, whenever the habitat is opened to exploitation for even a day.
We were told this evening that one purpose of the Hidden Beach “restoration” project is to help the prey base for predators, including the human predators, yet were also told that the “restoration” is supposed to help protect prey species from native predators.
Lost beaver ponds
We were told that the Hidden Beach habitat presently does not accommodate the insects who feed the very population of small fish that we just saw jumping in abundance, eating the insects who supposedly do not exist there.
We were told this evening that improving the salmon spawning habitat was a purpose of the Hidden Beach “restoration” project, until we pointed out that the three salmon spawning streams that entered the Saratoga Passage at either end of Hidden Beach circa 150 years ago and in the middle (still discernible in aerial photos) were fed by freshwater streams and beaver ponds that no longer exist. Most of the former pond sites were later filled and are now home sites.
In short, as we explained, there is no longer a freshwater supply to feed a salmon spawning stream. Then, suddenly, restoring salmon spawning habitat was not a purpose of the Hidden Beach “restoration” project.
Orcas, grey whales & sharks
We were told this evening that the Hidden Beach “restoration” project is necessary to provide a prey base for predators, including orcas, who are in desperate trouble in most of the Salish Sea region due to a scarcity of chinook salmon, almost the only species they eat.
Unfortunately no one seemed to be present from the Orca Project to confirm that orcas have seldom been seen more often at Hidden Beach than just this year, when they have come repeatedly, precisely because they have found some prey here, as have many other wild predators.
Grey whales fed off Hidden Beach this spring for 14 days in a row and about 20 days altogether.
Harbor seals are present year-round. Sea lions are frequent seasonal visitors.
River otters breed in the cliffs nearby and are also frequent seasonal visitors.
Dall’s porpoises and dogfish sharks have recently been seen in the shallows at high tide.
As many as 19 bald eagles at a time gather at Hidden Beach at low tide almost every day, with multiple nesting pairs in the area in each of the past dozen years. Great horned owls, golden eagles and osprey are occasional visitors. Kingfishers, great blue herons, and of course crows, ravens, and a variety of gull species are daily visitors.
Half a dozen species of ducks overwinter at Hidden Beach. Red-footed guillemots nest in the cliffs (among other birds and some small mammals, including rare creeping voles.)
Hidden Beach is, in short, one of the best places for watching wildlife, especially predators, of anywhere in the Puget Sound region — and most definitely not a habitat which is to be lightly and carelessly disrupted, at great taxpayer expense, by bringing in the sort of heavy equipment that would be necessary to remove the sparse remaining pilings and the big rocks.
Rich invertebrate micro-ecology
Incidentally, those pilings are in daily use by practically all of the avian predators, and if anyone cares to scoop handfuls of sand from around the big rocks to see what lives there, that person will discover an extremely rich invertebrate micro-ecology, including sand dollars, chitons, oysters, several crab species, mussels, clams, barnacles, ocean scallops, starfish, and ghost shrimp.
Hidden Beach, in short, does not need “habitat restoration.”
Hidden Beach probably could recover soon from whatever damage the Northwest Straits and the Island County Marine Resources Committee schemers might manage to do to it.
Hidden Beach has, after all, already recovered from early 20th century logging and log boom building that left the older pilings; erosion from an ensuing half century of sheep and cattle grazing on the slopes above; roadbuilding; housing development along part of the shoreline; and even a mid-1960s incident in which property developers drove in the newer pilings, rented a fireboat, then used the water cannon to trigger landslides that temporarily created an attractive sandy beach they imaginatively called “Surf Paradise.”
(There is no surf nearby to speak of, but years later, at least six of the “Surf Paradise” lots apparently slid off the plat maps and into the Saratoga Passage, if they ever really existed in the first place.)
Hidden Beach might recover; but why put the habitat through the additional stress of a “restoration” which at best amounts to performing cosmetic surgery long after the actual wounds have healed?
Expertise is local
What Hidden Beach really needs are habitat experts who have actually walked the beach with open eyes on multiple occasions in multiple seasons, at high tide and low tide, who know what they are actually seeing and do not insult our intelligence with abstract, hypothetical presentations based on generalities applicable to various other places, but not to here.
Unfortunately, Hidden Beach may not be an exception to recent trends in environmental planning and advocacy.
We were told by the Northwest Straits and the Island County Marine Resources Committee speakers that one of the main reasons they are pushing the Hidden Beach project is simply that this is a place where they think they can do it, whereas similar proposals advanced in other locations have encountered intensive resistance.
Just being able to do something, somewhere, is not a good enough reason to proceed with doing it.
Actually doing something positive for animals and habitat begins with specific knowledge of the animals and habitat involved.
When confronted with the depth and intensity of ignorance that ANIMALS 24-7 encountered tonight, advanced with blind arrogance, it is small wonder that many people who genuinely care about animals and habitat have turned against “environmentalism” as a cause.