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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 65 · No. 2 > Partnership Protects Pristine Estuary and Wetlands

Sept/Oct 2001
Vol. 65 · No. 2

Partnership Protects Pristine Estuary and Wetlands

by Maria Koklanaris

Today on Whalen Island, Ore., great blue herons perch on shore, splashing into clear waters when they spy a fish. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons soar overhead, while different species of duck nest in the marshes. Sand Lake Estuary, which surrounds the island, brims with steelhead, trout, and several varieties of salmon.

aerial view of Whalen Island
An aerial view of Whalen Island and the Salt Lake Estuary. The white sand in the upper left is the Sandlake Recreation area, and the Pacific Ocean is shown in the upper left corner.

This idyllic scene is due in part to the Western Federal Lands Highway Division (WFLHD) of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which last year contributed $500,000 to help purchase the 179-acre (72.4-hectare) Whalen Island and save it from development. The preservation of Whalen Island and the Sand Lake Estuary keeps intact one of only two remaining, completely natural estuaries along the state's coast. These estuaries — saltwater marshes that form when freshwater rivers and streams meet the ocean — provide crucial habitat for a wide variety of species, including seals and otters as well as many birds and fish

photo of tidal flats
This photograph taken from the edge of the protected wetland area (lower portion of photo) shows the tidal flats.

Most of the other estuaries in Oregon have been developed for agricultural purposes, and Whalen Island was a candidate for possible development. The island, which was zoned for residential development, was owned by one family for several generations, and the family was ready to sell it. The WFLHD contribution prevented it from being purchased by a developer.

The move by WFLHD, in partnership with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the National Park Service, and the private Trust for Public Lands, was widely cheered around the state.

photo of tidal sloughs
The tidal sloughs are a critical habitat for chum and coho salmon, steelhead trout, and cutthroat trout.

The island consists of 93 acres (37.6 hectares) of wetlands, including relatively pristine salt marsh habitat, and 86 acres (34.8 hectares) of wooded uplands on stabilized sand dunes. The WFLHD contribution preserved the wetlands and a 50-foot (15-meter) upland buffer zone. The rest of the upland area has been designated as a state park.

photo of sand flats
Sand flats such as this one surround the island.

"Whalen Island is the most significant acquisition we've made in some time," said David Wright, manager of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The upland area was suitable for recreational use, and it also provided some beach access.

photo of tidal flats
The tidal flats as viewed in the fog from the forested upland.

The dedication of the park was attended by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and a host of local and state dignitaries.

"The fact that the governor was there for the groundbreaking ceremony shows how huge this was to Oregon," said Victoria Peters, the WFLHD design engineer who handled the project.

photo of Ronald Carmichael
Ronald Carmichael of the Western Federal Lands Highway Division spoke at the opening ceremony.

Whalen Island is now open to the public. But the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is still in the process of holding public meetings to determine the recreational activities that will be allowed on the island. Possible uses could include camping, swimming, and hiking. In any event, park users will be banned from the most delicate areas on the island, such as marsh nesting areas.

"There are specific areas that [people] cannot enter. You can observe them only from a path; it's restricted access to keep these areas pristine. I think that's very unique," Peters said. "The important thing is that we have a permanent conservation agreement there now. That land will never be built on. We've preserved it.

photo of guided tour of island
A group of people on a guided tour of the island on the day of the opening ceremony.

"There's a lot of wildlife in that area. The whole ecosystem is impressive. On the west side, there's quite a length of natural beach that's really undisturbed. You don't find that too often," she said.

Others agree. Sam Hodder, a project manager for the Trust for Public Lands (TPL), lauded Whalen Island as "an incredible resource" and praised the "local, state, and federal partnership that protected it for the people of Oregon. Whalen Island is the centerpiece of the Sand Lake Estuary and provides critical salmon habitat; spectacular scenery; and beautiful, open beaches for the public to enjoy."

photo of guided tour at the beach
The guided tour on opening day at the beach on the island.

"WFLHD learned about Whalen Island while working on a project to improve nearby Oregon Forest Highway 164," Peters explained. "This project required filling in 5.18 acres [2.1 hectares] of wetlands. These wetlands were on both sides of the road in some locations within the project area, and environmental impacts to the wetlands could not be avoided during the roadwork. As a result, WFLHD needed to develop a wetlands mitigation plan in which it would help to preserve wetlands to compensate those being lost."

FHWA's goal for wetland replacement is to develop at least 1.5 acres (0.6 hectares) of wetlands for every acre (0.4 hectare) lost. WFLHD's assistance in purchasing Whalen Island meant that 93 acres of wetlands would be protected, preserving about 18 acres (7.3 hectares) for each acre lost in the Highway 164 project.

photo of Gov. John Kitzhaber
The presence of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber at the opening ceremony demonstrated the importance of this project.

"In addition to Whalen Island, WFLHD considered two other mitigation sites. One of them would not have protected enough wetlands to meet the 1.5-to-1 ratio required by FHWA. The other site met the mitigation goal, but it contained less than one-third as many wetland acres as did Whalen Island and would have cost WFLHD more than twice as much. In addition, the selection of Whalen Island was strongly supported by the local Tillamook County officials, residents, and the natural resources agencies," said Peters.

The involvement of WFLHD was very important, Wright said. "It was a big price tag, and we had limited funds available. It was good for FHWA, too, because they could use it for mitigation for roadwork they were doing. It was really a partnership. Without the assistance of WFLHD, there could be several home sites on [Whalen Island], and that would have changed the whole complexion of this estuary. It's really a natural area now, and it will remain that way."

high-altitude photo of Whelan Island
A high-altitude photo of Whelan Island with the approximate boundaries of the upland, wetland, and 50-foot (15-meter) buffer area superimposed.

"Since completing the purchase and dedication of the island, [WFLHD] has received several inquiries from other nonprofit groups looking to build off the success of the Whalen Island purchase," Peters said. "Our office continues to work with groups, such as the Trust for Public Lands and the River Conservancy, to understand customer needs, identify important mitigation sites, and complete acquisitions and land transfers.

"We are eager to work in partnership with these groups and other agencies to identify and accomplish mutually beneficial projects that enhance our corporate management strategies."

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