A nonprofit conservation group has secured nearly 650 acres for conservation of wildlife habitat in the lower Columbia River.

The Vancouver, Wash.-based Columbia Land Trust announced late last month that it has acquired 196 acres of old growth spruce forested wetlands on the edge of Grays Bay near Grays River, Wash. According to a press release from the trust, the intact inter-tidal wetland habitat is rare and valuable in the lower Columbia River.

The second acquisition, 451 acres on Crims Island about 55 miles from the mouth of the river in Columbia County, is part of a system of flood plains and main channel islands. Biologists have identified the restoration of this area as key to recovery of salmon and other wildlife.

Cherie Kearney, the Land Trust's conservation director, said these two beautiful parcels are among the most exciting acquisitions in the trust's 13-year history.

The Grays Bay property is bisected by a tributary known as "Secret River" because it appears and disappears with the flowing and ebbing tides. This strong inter-tidal action and the broader freshwater-saltwater transition zone of the Columbia River Estuary plays a crucial role in the life cycles of ocean going fish.

Juvenile salmon and steelhead forage in the back waters, fortifying themselves for life in the ocean. The swampy wetland areas provide cover from predators.

"Conservation of this property gives a big boost to salmon recovery efforts underway in the Columbia River Estuary," said Ian Sinks, the Land Trust's stewardship director. "This is one of the best remnant examples left in the estuary of the spruce forest wetland habitat that used to dominate this area."

Trust staff have already identified three bald eagle nests on the property. The upland areas provide habitat for sensitive eagles and marbled murrelets.

Disturbed portions of the property will be managed for recovery of old growth forests. Wetlands will be managed for the highest benefit to aquatic plants and animals - salmon in particular.

In 2000, Clyde Sprague, a longtime Grays River area resident, approached the Land Trust to talk about conserving this family land. He had passed the land to his daughter, Deborah Hubbard. They had heard of the Land Trust's efforts to restore habitat for wildlife in the lower Grays River area.

"We have a variety of conservation tools available to work with landowners, ranging from gifts and bequests to bargain sales to finding funding for an outright purchase of land," Kearney said. "But all of our projects begin with a willing landowner."

After lengthy negotiations, the deal was completed.

"We're grateful that Deborah and her family wanted to see the land in conservation," Kearney said.

The property cost just more than $1 million, she said.

This project was funded by the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and private donors including the Charlotte Y. Martin Foundation, the Wildlife Forever Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The project has been highly ranked by the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board.

The Land Trust bought 451 acres on Crims Island from Duncan Douglas LLC, for $427,000 - the appraised value, Kearney said. The land had been used for agriculture since the early 20th Century.

Columbia Land Trust was able to secure an option on the property with the landowners while it worked with the Bonneville Power Administration and the USFWS to secure funding.

Crims Island is one of few large islands in the Columbia River that hasn't been radically altered by dredging.

The island is within the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for the Columbian white-tailed deer and Columbia Land Trust will donate the property to USFWS to manage as part of the refuge. Along with BPA's funding for the acquisition of the property, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is providing the necessary federal match by completing the restoration on the property.

Restoration will provide large areas of backwater habitat for fish, restore habitat conditions critical for the white-tailed deer, and restore the native vegetation community to benefit a large variety of wildlife species. Specific actions will include removing invasive non-native plants, breaching dikes to restore the natural hydrology to the marsh and wooded swamplands and restoring native vegetation.

Crims Island is about 600 acres total. The state of Oregon and two private landowners own the rest of the island. Kearney said that the trust is not interested in acquiring Oregon's share, because the state is managing it for the same conservation goals. She said if the other landowners someday become willing sellers, the Land Trust might be interested in acquiring their lands too.

"The hallmark of what Columbia Land Trust does is working with private land owners who want to sell their land for conservation," she said.

Public access to Crims Island will be allowed under the rules of the wildlife refuge. The trust also intends to allow limited public access to the Secret River parcel, provided that it does not impinge on the primary goals of habitat restoration.

"We try not to bar public access if we don't need to," she said.

The trust works in 11 counties in both Oregon and Washington along the Lower Columbia River. The organization has brought more than 4,500 acres of land into conservation and counts more than 1,000 members.

For more information call the trust at (360) 696-0131 or visit its Web site at

(www.columbialandtrust.org)

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