A little-known funding program to protect and restore coastal wetlands across the United States has been very, very good for Washington state.
Over the past five years, Washington state has received $26.9 million to purchase and restore wetland properties as part of the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program. That’s a surprising 28 percent of the $95 million made available to 20 states situated along the U.S. coasts and Great Lakes.
Not only has Washington state received more money than any other state every year for the past five years, it has also had more projects funded every year but one. In 2016, California was granted funds for nine projects totaling $5.5 million, compared to Washington’s seven projects totaling $5.6 million.
Washington’s success in the grant program is largely the result of the expertise and commitment provided by numerous local governments, Indian tribes, land trusts and other organizations familiar with the valuable wetlands in their area, according to Heather Kapust, who manages these grant submissions for the Washington Department of Ecology.
Working closely with both local officials and federal experts, Heather identifies high-value wetlands, documents their critical functions and characterizes the risks of forever losing these important wetlands. In her part-time position, Heather focuses almost entirely on this one grant program — and clearly the investment has paid off.
This year, seven Washington state projects received a total of $5 million. The seven projects were among 23 approved nationwide totaling $17 million. (I’ll describe this year’s approvals, including Misery Point on Hood Canal, later in this blog post.)
“We’re very proud of the work we do,” Heather told me. “We have the most amazing partners. They are the ears on the ground, and they come to us with these amazing projects. We do a lot of vetting, working in concert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff.”
Application and funding
The grant program, managed by USFWS, receives its funding mainly from taxes paid on fuel and equipment purchased by recreational anglers and boaters. Heather works closely with wetlands experts in the USFWS regional office in Portland to finely tune grant proposals, which include a minimum of 30 pages of narrative along with photos, maps and biological reports.
“It is kind of a daunting application process,” Heather said, which is why she and her advisers often limit their applications to six or seven of the most valuable projects that have been submitted with support from involved landowners and the surrounding community. Applications must be submitted by a state agency, such as Ecology.
Much of the ecological information comes out of the massive effort underway in Washington state to restore the ecosystem in Puget Sound and along the coast. Salmon and orcas have gotten a lot of attention lately, and they do benefit from most wetland-restoration projects. For example, both freshwater and saltwater wetlands serve as rearing habitat for Chinook salmon, the primary prey for orcas.
Nonetheless, the coastal wetlands grants are not just about salmon — as U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are quick to remind grant recipients, Heather noted. In scoring the grants, a federal review panel gives as much weight to protecting birds as fish, she said. In fact, some isolated wetlands and backshore lagoons contain no fish at all but may provide critical feeding or nesting habitat for migratory birds and shorebirds.
Wetlands also provide a multitude of functions related to water quality, such as filtering runoff to provide clean and continuous water supplies. With careful management, wetlands also offer places for people to enjoy and learn about the wonders of nature.
The federal grant program favors wetlands of rare types within an ecoregion, including specially recognized wetland functions — especially those in decline or threatened with destruction. Grants provide up to 75 percent of the cost of wetland acquisition and protection.
Chances of approval are often better when extra state and local funds come into play — especially when the money comes from multiple partners, Heather said. The maximum for any one federal grant is $1 million, but projects can be continued in phases using multiple grants.
“The beauty of this program is that it is annual; we always have next year,” she said. “A lot of people come to me with a project that is not quite ready. I say, ‘Here is how we can come back and make this project better.’”
Normally, the process involves a “road trip” each year with visits to each wetland before the applications are submitted for grant money. Local, state and federal officials meet on-site to discuss the details of each project and to hone the application. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those on-site trips were postponed. They may be held before final approval in the fall, Heather said, provided that safety protocols are established and the governor gives his approval.
History of the grants program
Washington has been receiving coastal wetlands grants since 1993. Over that time period, some 74 grants have been approved for about $122 million used to protect and restore more than 13,000 acres of wetlands in the state.
Heather, who has been in her position for the past six years, says she inherited an efficient evaluation and grant-writing operation from previous grant managers at Ecology.
The grant program grew out of the federal Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986, when lawmakers responded to concerns regarding the rapid destruction of valuable wetlands. Of the 215 million acres that existed when European settlers arrived, only about 44 percent remain today.
The National Wetlands Priority Conservation Plan, written in 1989, begins with this statement:
“We now know things about wetlands that we should have known decades ago … Historically, wetlands have had very negative connotations in our thinking and our vocabulary. Swamps, for example, have conjured up images of impenetrable wastelands, places where people get ‘bogged down.’
“Of course we knew that they provide important habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife resources. However, we are only now coming to realize the importance of wetlands for enhancing water quality, providing water supply and serving as a natural means of flood and erosion control. They also contribute significant recreational and commercial benefits that enhance the nation’s economy….
“State and local governments are encouraged to educate the public about wetland values and services and establish a policy designed to encourage conservation and enhancement of wetlands.”
WASHINGTON PROJECTS WITH 2020 FUNDING
For the full list of approved projects nationwide, download the coastal wetlands grants project summaries (PDF 540 kb).
Misery Point, $1 million
Located near Seabeck on Hood Canal, this 21-acre property with 3,500 feet of shoreline includes a 1,600-foot-long sand spit sheltering a three-acre lagoon.
“Feeder bluffs” on the property provide sand and gravel for the sand spit and nutrients for eelgrass beds that offer habitat for juvenile salmon, including Puget Sound Chinook and Hood Canal summer chum, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The eelgrass also supports herring, an important food source for salmon, marine mammals and birds.
Despite development opportunities, the forested point has remained largely untouched, maintaining habitat for all sorts of marine life, including shellfish and birds. Some observers have reported seeing the endangered marbled murrelet fishing offshore.
Great Peninsula Conservancy, the local sponsor, has applied for state funds to complete the $1.7-million purchase, according to Nathan Daniel, executive director of GPC.
“By protecting this critical habitat, GPC, our members, and our partners are helping protect the food web that allows iconic species, such as our resident killer whales, to continue to call the Hood Canal home,” Nate said in an email.
Public access to the property is being planned — including a possible stopover point for paddlers following the Kitsap Peninsula National Water Trails.
The name “Misery Point,” which apparently derives from a tragic smallpox epidemic in the 1800s, may hold a certain mystique, Nate observed, but it may not be the best name for this future nature preserve.
“It is still a bit early to make the final decision on the preserve’s name,” he said, “but we feel giving this natural area a traditional title recommended by our local tribal partners would be a more appropriate way to honor both the first people living here as well as pointing to the ecological value of the habitat.”
Stillaguamish Tidal Wetlands, $1 million
A 248-acre property with degraded estuarine and marine wetlands in northern Puget Sound is to be restored by moving back existing levees and restoring tidal channels. The Stillaguamish Tribe, the local partner, is seeking state matching funds and other money to buy the farmland, valued at $2.3 million.
The property includes more than a mile of waterfront on the Stillaguamish River and half a mile fronting Port Susan. Restoration to emergent marsh would benefit fish and wildlife, supporting populations of Chinook salmon that inhabit the Stillaguamish and Skagit rivers and use the shoreline as a migratory corridor. Restored wetlands also would provide prime habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds on the Pacific flyway.
Drayton Harbor and California Creek, $915,000
More than 54 acres with 6,500 feet of shoreline would be purchased by the Whatcom Land Trust to protect coastal wetland habitat, including the California Creek estuary in northern Puget Sound. The property is valued at $1.4 million.
Tide flats and marshes serve as rearing habitat for young salmon while providing food for migrating juvenile fish. The wetlands offer habitat for a diversity of migratory shorebirds, waterfowl and passerine species, such as black oystercatchers, greater yellowlegs and red-necked grebes.
Discovery Bay, $713,268
Local partner Jefferson Land Trust will purchase nine acres of critical wetlands and nearshore habitat with 2,172 feet of shoreline in Discovery Bay near Port Townsend. Total cost is estimated at $1.2 million.
This project, listed as “phase 1,” will conserve a degraded and filled estuary and nearshore habitat along with a rare intact pocket estuary and salt marsh. The site contains habitat for salmon and numerous other fish and wildlife — from native Olympia oysters to forage fish to migratory shorebirds.
Lower Henderson Inlet, $574,000
Capitol Land Trust, the local partner, proposes to purchase a conservation easement to protect 94 acres of Puget Sound shoreline containing 2,100 acres of waterfront in South Puget Sound. The total cost is estimated at $814,000.
The project builds on the recent acquisition and restoration on more than 150 acres on the opposite shore of Henderson Inlet, a project funded in 2017. The property contains estuary and nearshore habitat supporting Chinook, coho and steelhead, as well as a farm field and timberland. The property has been identified as a high priority by the Department of Ecology and the Squaxin Island Tribe.
Tarboo Creek, $508,000
More than 14 acres of wetlands along Tarboo Creek on Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay will be purchased and restored in partnership with the Northwest Watershed Institute. The total project cost is $720,000.
Structures and wetland fill will be removed from five acres on two properties. A third property will be restored with native vegetation to support declining wetland types known as forested and scrub-shrub wetlands, recognized nationally for their importance. The site also includes a variety of freshwater wetland types.
Altogether, the wetlands make up a diverse habitat that includes spawning and rearing areas for many at-risk species, including salmon, trout and lamprey.
Lower Eld Inlet, $355,000
In the third phase of a long project, local partner Capitol Land Trust will purchase and protect more than 55 acres of property, including 9.5 acres of tidelands and 46 acres of wetlands plus 3,250 feet of waterfront on Lower Eld Inlet in South Puget Sound.
The project will remove five derelict structures and two fish-blocking culverts while restoring wetland hydrology and eradicating areas of invasive species.
The property to be protected is adjacent to nearly 600 acres and six miles of shoreline that were acquired through previous grants from the National Coastal Wetland Conservation Grant Program.