skagit river delta

Witnessing Change at Fir Island Farm

Written & photographed by Julie Morse, Regional Ecologist

For thousands of years it was an estuary.  Then for 100 years it was farmland.  Now, it’s estuary again. 

More or less halfway between the mouths of the North Fork and the South Fork of the Skagit River, Fir Island Farm sits on the edge of Puget Sound with stunning views of Mount Baker.  For the last 100 years it has produced potatoes, corn, wheat and other crops and drawn visitors from far away every winter to see the flocks of thousands of Snow Geese that congregate here in the winter

The Skagit River itself defines this place.  It’s the largest river entering Puget Sound, fed by the glaciers of Mount Baker and the North Cascade peaks it supports all five species of Pacific Salmon.  For Skagit’s Chinook Salmon, a threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act, estuary habitat at the mouth of the river is a limiting factor in their recovery.  Tidal marsh habitat here is a quarter of what it was historically.  The Fir Island Farm restoration of 131 acres alone is projected to increase smolt production by at least 65,000 every year.

From a farmer’s perspective, it’s always painful to see farmland lost, whether it’s for salmon restoration or development of a new sub-division in rural areas – the impact on their bottom line is the same.  Farmer’s need a critical landmass to maintain a viable economy, and particularly in the Skagit -located halfway between Seattle to the South and Vancouver to the North, development pressure in recent years has encroached from all directions.  Add the importance of the Skagit estuary for salmon recovery projects, and combined the pressures on this prime lands are enormous.

And yet, local farming groups support the Fir Island Farm restoration because the project design includes critical improvements to their infrastructure.  A state-of-art pump house and new setback dike will provide improved drainage capacity and flood protection for future sea level rise and storm surge conditions thus serving as a model for much of Western Washington.  This project is also supported because it enables the local diking districts’ to make repairs and do maintenance on their flood and drainage systems.  It also prioritizes restoration of state owned public lands, rather than private farmland.

The Fir Island Farm restoration project is a model of TNC’s approach to conservation and restoration in the complex and populated landscapes of Puget Sound.  Not only does the project design include drainage and flood improvements for local farmers, it also retains a portion of farmland to manage for Snow Geese. The project design accommodates future sea level rise and is designed to protect the adjacent lands from coastal storm surge, is a model for adapting to climate change.  Designing and implementing complex multiple benefit projects like this is no small feat; and our hats go off to WDFW’s Project Manager Jenna Friebel and her team.

Monday afternoon as we stood on the new dike and watched the first flood tide in 100 years return to Fir Island Farm, I think all of us TNC staff felt somewhat in awe, and incredibly humbled.  Humbled to be alongside such a large group of partners - all who have had some piece in making the project happen.  And in awe of how dynamic this place is.  What we witness today is just a snapshot in time; it’s a work in progress.

Now it’s time for Mother Nature to take over.  To start excavating new channels and bringing in large wood to create habitat complexity for salmon fry, to restore sediment flow that will create rich muddy intertidal stopover sites for migratory shorebirds, and continue restoring this incredible piece of the Skagit estuary.


Timelapse: Port Susan Bay Shorebirds

Video by Joelene Boyd, Puget Sound Stewardship Coordinator /Interim Stewardship Director

A timelapse camera was set up at our Port Susan Bay Preserve in an attempt to capture the King Tides. We ended up getting so much more, see what our cameras captured in the video above!

Learn more about our work at Port Susan Bay

Conservation: It Takes A Village


Engaging tomorrow’s stewards in community-supported conservation

Written and Photographed by Laura Lea Rubino, Marketing Intern

Could you ask for a better classroom? On Friday July 10th, the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars (DDCS), a group of 25 undergraduate students, learned about building community support and collaboration for conservation at the Conservancy’s Fisher Slough restoration site. The DDCS program offers competitive applicants an opportunity to learn more about conservation by exposing participants to professionals who are reshaping landscapes and transforming communities. Given the history of the Fisher Slough restoration project, its selection as the outdoor classroom of choice was clear.

Fisher Slough is without a doubt a success story. Located in the Skagit River Delta, it is the end product of a recent restoration effort aimed at creating salmon habitat and advancing the interests of local community members. Its revitalization is living proof that stakeholder engagement is the foundation of effective conservation.

The Skagit River Delta is noteworthy—it contributes 50% of the wild Chinook salmon population to Puget Sound and sustains an annual $300 million agricultural industry. Yet conditions have changed considerably since the arrival of the first European settlers—diking and draining started in the 1800s, resulting in a river disconnected from its floodplain and a 73% loss in tidal wetlands.

These wetlands have the potential to provide a variety of invaluable natural benefits, such as habitat for endangered Chinook, flood protection, and water filtration. But capturing these benefits requires the alteration of landscapes where humans live, work, and grow food. Understanding community needs and incorporating community benefits is essential for mobilizing local support and sustaining conservation outcomes.

The initiative to restore Fisher Slough, a task that The Nature Conservancy was invited to lead, was successful because it was a fundamentally collaborative effort. All groups with a stake in the area participated in the project’s decision-making process and took an active role in setting project objectives.

Reflecting on the reasons for its remarkable success, Fisher Slough Project Manager Jenny Baker (pictured in photo 2), who led the site visit, suggests “Multiple community needs were satisfied because a process that valued everyone’s needs equally was established at the project outset and followed throughout the life of the project.”

At the end of the day, the restoration of Fisher Slough strengthened flood protection, increased fish habitat, and provided the community with updated flood and drainage infrastructure. This kind of win-win solution is the cornerstone of the Nature Conservancy’s approach to conservation.

Like The Nature Conservancy, the DDCS program is a proponent of inclusive conservation strategies that honor diverse stakeholders, voices, and values. Its philosophy is rooted in the belief that the future success of conservationism hinges on its ability to diversify and uphold an ethic of inclusivity.

The young scholars who visited Fisher Slough were passionate, inquisitive, and eager to learn more about conservation as it relates to the Skagit River Delta. With backgrounds in a variety of disciplines—not just conservation—these students’ participation in the DDCS program signifies their commitment to the environment and their understanding of the many possibilities for addressing environmental issues. By meeting with conservation leaders like Jenny, these young men and women are learning that effective conservation is not simply the work of conservationists, but the work of entire communities.

No matter the direction of their future careers, these students will continue to view problem solving through a lens of inclusivity and collaboration. Though freshmen and sophomores in college today, these scholars are the leaders of tomorrow. This is good news for conservation, and good news for the world.