The West Coast's Second Largest Estuary
Tucked behind the Long Beach Peninsula, just north of the massive Columbia River mouth, lies Willapa Bay. One of Washington’s finest coastal and natural features, Willapa Bay is the second-largest estuary on the West Coast, containing a remarkable array of Pacific Northwest habitats. Its abundant salt marsh and tidal mudflats, coastal dunes and beaches, grasslands and stands of old-growth forest play host to a diverse array fish and wildlife. The bay itself is a vibrant estuarine ecosystem that provides crucial spawning and rearing habitat for native salmonids.
Willapa Bay’s unique ecology and exceptional recreation opportunities led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in 1937. The creation of this refuge was a tremendous conservation achievement, but the life source of the bay are its rivers, which lie outside the boundaries of the refuge. Rivers and streams flowing off privately owned land around it must be protected if fish and wildlife are to thrive. Almost a century after the creation of Willapa NWR, there is still important conservation work to do to ensure the estuary’s lasting health.
ADDING TO THE WILLAPA BAY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Adjacent to the Willapa NWR, Western Rivers Conservancy has the rare opportunity to purchase 2,394 acres of coastal forest, including critically important swaths of old-growth, along the Bear River. As we work to acquire the property, we are seeking funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund in order to facilitate its transfer to a long-term steward. Our goal is to convey the property to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in summer 2024 for permanent protection.
The property, called the Willapa Coastal Forest, includes three miles of the Bear River, one of the small but highly important rivers that help form Willapa Bay. The roughly 250 acres of wetlands concentrated around the property’s stream corridors support a diverse array of plant and animal species, including critical spawning and rearing habitat for salmonids.
WRC’s purchase and conservation of the property will benefit populations of chum, fall Chinook, coho, sea-run cutthroat trout and steelhead that enter the Bear River each year. Our efforts will also help protect coniferous forestland on the slopes above the bay that provide habitat for marbled murrelet, Roosevelt elk and the elusive Columbian black-tailed deer.
From a recreation standpoint, expanding the Willapa NWR will create more opportunities for people to visit this special place and explore its natural wonders. Every year, scores of visitors take to Willapa Bay to boat, hike, birdwatch, hunt and harvest shellfish. The Willapa NWR is one of few refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System that is open to camping.
To date, WRC has signed an agreement to purchase the Willapa Coastal Forest, and now the hard work of securing funding through the LWCF begins. With the first step complete, we are officially on our way toward improving the health of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and the ability for people to experience it in new ways.