Friends group works to expand Willapa wildlife refuge access

Tarlett Slough, which can be accessed from the end of 95th Street east of Sandridge Road, flows outward to join the south end of Willapa Bay. It is a habitat rich in bird life and mammals including river otters.

WILLAPA, Wash. — With restoration work that knocked out miles of federally owned dikes on Willapa Bay reaching the end of its funding, the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge plans to open up thousands of acres to hunters this fall and give south Pacific County residents and visitors prime public access to the bay.

Last week, the independent, nonprofit Friends of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge talked to a review board with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife about the Friends’ request for a $60,000 Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account grant. The group, through Pacific County, hopes to develop 95th Street in Long Beach which dead-ends at the refuge’s Tarlatt Slough unit.

It’s an area rich in scenery and wildlife. Thousands of birds migrate through the bay and nest in the woods and grasses. A mother bear likes to wander quietly there with her cub. A few people have caught glimpses of her as she disappears into the woods. Elk and deer carve trails through the trees.

“A lot of people would like to go out there,” said Ron Craig of South Bend, the group’s director of infrastructure and trails. “And the refuge would like to have them.”

But this isn’t so obvious on 95th Street where a locked gate bars the way to an old logging road. While pedestrians are permitted to pass beside the gate, it’s difficult to park there and even more difficult to turn a car around when it’s time to leave.

The grant would pay to add and improve parking options, install a ramp suitable for canoes and kayaks, provide signs and information kiosks and move the gate back. ALEA grants are typically provided to help federal and state agencies purchase lands for public access, said Clay Nichols, president of the Friends. This project, however, would provide access to lands that are already public.

“This is kind of a horse of a different color,” Nichols said.

But it’s an important access point, he argued. Opening it up would mean volunteers, school groups, boaters, photographers and birders would have a convenient way to safely enter that area of the refuge and have public access to the bay.

Currently, it’s possible to reach the bay by way of Leadbetter Point at the northern tip of the Peninsula or through a public ramp in Nacohtta.

“Other than that, there isn’t much public access, as opposed to the ocean side where practically every major cross street perpendicular to the ocean has public beach access,” Nichols said. “It’s quite a contrast.”

If the Friends land the grant, the group will have to provide a 50 percent match of $30,000. They plan to do this through in-kind work and money they’ve been able to save – all their money, in fact, according to Craig.

“We’re all in,” he said.

Farther west, and catering to another group of wildlife enthusiasts, the refuge will open 2,600 acres of habitat not previously open to waterfowl hunting, and 1,000 acres for deer and elk hunting will be available to hunters during state-scheduled seasons.

Despite concerns the public raised when the refuge first proposed removing the dikes, the elk, deer and birds are using the bay area much as they had before, said Jackie Ferrier, refuge manager. And, in the newly restored open water, intertidal flats and salt marches, monitors are recording fish. For the first time, refuge employees are seeing chum salmon.

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