Some key points to consider in deciding what to do with publicly owned land on the Skipanon Peninsula (“Port of Astoria ponders wetland bank,” The Daily Astorian, May 30):
• Around 80 percent of the Columbia River estuary’s tidal wetlands — historically dominated by Sitka spruce and serving an important array of environmental functions including salmon habitat — has been destroyed or damaged by development.
• We live in a time of rising sea levels. Though counteracted here, for the time being, by a swelling subduction zone in the Earth’s crust, much low-lying land near the ocean will be subjected to increasing flooding as this century moves forward.
• Man-made dredge-spoils land is particularly vulnerable to erosion and liquefaction during earthquakes, making it ill-suited for most forms of industrial and residential building.
• Deciding where to best accommodate coastal development will increasingly become a critical issue as the U.S. population increases. Even in the absence of climate change, the Pacific Northwest can eventually expect a population density analogous to that in the Northeast, which had a 200-year head start on intensive settlement.
• Although somewhat remote from local population centers, the public has a surprising degree of interest in the Skipanon Peninsula. It was the focal point of years of heated controversy after a former Port of Astoria commission wanted to lease part of it — which it at the time leased from the state — for a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal that has since been rejected.
The Port owns the portion of the peninsula closest to the historic shoreline, while the state of Oregon owns its northeastern tip. The Port is starting to decide whether to flood more than 70 acres of dunes and shrublands it owns for use as a wetland mitigation bank. The two entities would be smart to work together on an overall plan for the land.
As our story last week explained, many construction projects affecting watersheds require creation of new wetlands or purchase of credits to offset adverse impacts of development. Banks are large wetland restoration projects approved by the state to sell credits within a certain area. They can be source of considerable revenue for their owners, while facilitating nearby economic development by clearing the way for building on other wetlands. The Port itself recently paid more than $260,000 for 1.5 acres worth of wetland mitigation credits from Warrenton Fiber to offset runway work at the Astoria Regional Airport.
Creation of a wetland bank may be the highest and best use for this ephemeral land by the side of a dynamic river mouth. Although there will be those who grouse about loss of near-shore land for hypothetical future industrial development, it doesn’t make sense to build much of anything on a sand bank that didn’t exist a century ago and which may disappear in coming decades.
Creating a wetland bank won’t be cheap or easy, but there is good potential for partnerships with entities interested in habitat restoration. Writing about a project elsewhere in the estuary, Columbia Land Trust correctly observed, “If the Columbia River is the lifeblood of the region, then the lower Columbia River may well be its heart. By restoring tidal wetlands, swamps, sloughs, and channels, we’re increasing resilience in the ecosystem, and we’re putting landscapes in a position to recover some of our most threatened and iconic wildlife species. The work is muddy, slow, and at times daunting, but when the fish arrive in places dormant for centuries, it offers new hope. The pulse quickens and the river stirs, thriving with life.”
This would be an excellent outcome for the Skipanon Peninsula.