The Willapa Bay ecosystem — the estuary and the forested uplands whose fresh waters mix with the tidal surges of the bay — is the most productive coastal ecosystem remaining in the continental United States. One of every six oysters consumed in the United States grows on Willapa's tideflats. Pacific salmon, Dungeness crab, and several species of clams also abound in the bay. Nowhere in the Northwest do conifers grow faster, and cranberry bogs, cattle ranches, and dairy farms attest to the land's fertility.
The Willapa ecosystem encompasses some 680,000 acres in the southwest corner of Washington state above the mouth of the Columbia River. Its forests of Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western redcedar and Sitka spruce once held some of the most massive trees encountered anywhere in the world. The Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938 to protect the winter habitat of a small sea goose called the Pacific or black brant, is one of the most ecologically diverse in the nationwide system of refuges. A partial roster of threatened or endangered species that still find a home in the refuge and elsewhere in the Willapa ecosystem includes at least 21 birds, 9 plants, 2 salamanders, a butterfly, and a snail.
Willapa's 19,000 year-round human residents depend on livelihoods rooted in the productive abundance of its lands and waters. Nearly two-thirds of the land in the Willapa Bay watershed is commercial forestland. Farms and irrigated lands together make up another seven percent, including the 1,400 acres of bogs in the Willapa area that account for virtually all of the state's harvest of cranberries. Oysters are cultivated on nearly 10,000 acres of privately owned or leased tidelands, and three species of Pacific salmon that return to spawn in Willapa's streams are caught by commercial fishermen in the open waters of the bay.
The people of Willapa Bay recognize that a healthy ecosystem goes hand in hand with a healthy local economy. Willapa is the kind of place where a sustainable local economy — one that harvests the abundance of an extraordinary ecosystem while maintaining its diversity and integrity — ought to be possible.
Yet recent years have been difficult ones for Willapa's communities. The four counties that share the ecosystem (Pacific, Grays Harbor, Lewis, and Wahkiakum) are among the most economically depressed in Washington state. The number of timber and wood products jobs has declined continuously over the last several decades as automation has replaced manual tasks in the industry.
Sustainable economic development will require, above all, local choices and local decisions. As the examples that follow suggest, the cornerstones of sustainability have already been laid.
Oystering, the centerpiece of Willapa's tideland enterprises, actually enhances the diversity of the estuary. Oyster beds on the tideflats provide habitat for crabs, eelgrass, algae, and many marine invertebrates essential to a healthy ecosystem. Oysters also filter water as they feed, improving water quality for young fish in the shallows. Oystering suggests an ideal for sustainable enterprises: it profits while enhancing the diversity and productivity of the ecosystem as a whole.
Timberland owners have already modified forest practices to protect forest corridors along streams once scoured by splashdams and to reduce the downstream impacts of logging. Over time, it may make economic and ecological sense to prune young trees in some managed stands to produce higher-quality lumber, to encourage multi-species forests in place of single-species plantations, and to allow some trees to mature beyond the 55-year rotation cycle. Such multi-aged, structurally diverse forests would sustain more kinds of birds, mammals, and other life forms than even-aged tree farms.
Keeping Willapa Bay healthy by promoting environmentally sound, sustainable businesses should help dampen the destructive "boom-and-bust" cycles that have buffeted Willapa's communities. The ecosystem and the human communities it supports have undergone extraordinary changes in the last 140 years. Choosing sustainability will link today's residents to the distant future and begin work that their grandchildren can continue with pride.
A Tidewater Place: Portrait of the Willapa Ecosystem
10 x 9½", 48 pages, ISBN 0-89886-400-3.
© 1993 The Willapa Alliance, $10.00 + shipping
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