Photos and writing by David Ryan, forester and project manager
Q: What happens when a forester goes to the beach?
A: You get more beach! (which is a good thing, if you’re a snowy plover)
“No one’s ever done this before” is one of my favorite things to hear as a forester and project manager for The Nature Conservancy. It’s a sentence I’ve heard more than once since working here, and it’s usually spoken in the context of an ambitious project that, for operational, logistical or financial reasons, may have been considered inconceivable or impossible.
Such was the case when we were approached by our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partners at the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge regarding a snowy plover habitat-restoration project at Leadbetter Point.
Refuge Wildlife Biologist Will Ritchie has been heading a visionary and extensive restoration project for snowy plover habitat at Leadbetter Point. Snowy plovers are migratory shorebirds that are very rugged when it comes to preferred habitat, which is open sea coasts, with some inland populations living around brackish or saline lakes, lagoons and seasonal wetlands. Although spartan when it comes to habitat, snowy plovers are very sensitive to disturbances and are currently federally listed as "threatened" and are listed as "endangered" in Washington state. Snowy plover populations are declining due to habitat loss from development and environmental pollution, as well as tourists trampling nesting sites and disturbing roosts.
Situated in the northern portion of their migratory route, Leadbetter Point in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is ideal habitat for snowy plovers and a wide variety of other shorebirds. Due to location and land-management goals, Leadbetter Point is also one of the few areas that has great potential for snowy plover habitat to increase rather than decrease or hold steady. But this will take determination and the ability to work in a challenging environment where weather and tides factor among a host of other constraints.
At Leadbetter Point, snowy plovers prefer the shifting sand dunes that are populated with sparse, native dune grass. Non-native beach grasses have overtaken areas of the dunes and have stabilized the land, allowing for forest encroachment upon plover habitat. These shore pine and Sitka spruce forests not only encroach upon habitat, but they provide close proximity perching sites for corvids and raptors that prey upon snowy plovers and their young.
The Nature Conservancy was tasked with removing approximately 70 acres of this shore pine and spruce. By pushing the forest back from the beach, we make it more difficult for predators that now have to expend more energy to reach snowy plover nesting sites. We also provide some fertile hunting grounds for these predator, which now have an extra 70 acres of open area to hunt a variety of rodents farther from the shore. Yet another benefit pertains to climate change and projected sea-level rise, which will threaten plover nesting sites from the other direction. Reclaiming these dunes from the forest allows for easier development of snowy plover habitat in the event that sea-level rise destroys current nesting sites.
These acres of forest were felled by an expert saw crew of seven men from Payne Reforestation. Working in the winter so as not to disturb nesting birds presented extra challenges. Access to the job site required driving more than four miles up the beach, and we had to time our access with the tides, which in winter can be quite high — failure to account for them can be disastrous. Coastal winter weather and shortened daylight hours further constrained our ability to work. The terrain was problematic, peppered with steep hummocks, impenetrable walls of vegetation and seasonal ponds and bogs that can be troublesome to navigate.
Also, due to the species and their growing site conditions, the individual trees were very thick, wolfy and presented numerous challenges for efficient work. They also dulled the chains very quickly. The crew did outstanding work and maintained what seemed to be an impossibly positive attitude in the face of these conditions.
So if you like your beach, and you’d like more of it or would like to otherwise try doing the undoable in the service of habitat restoration, then let us know. It’s one of our favorite things.