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Indian Jack Slough

Indian Jack Slough’s Renaissance

Indian Jack Slough - Columbia Landtrust StaffBattered, tired, cold, and drenched to the bone from enduring a late-February day’s worth of non-stop rain, I and two other colleagues were ready to seek our urban sanctuaries. Our knuckles, fingers, and thumbs were bloody and throbbing from swinging hammers that too often missed 2-inch-long galvanized staples—unmerciful reminders of our final day’s efforts to complete 7,300 feet of fencing. We built this important fence surrounding a 50 acre portion of the 180-acre Indian Jack Slough property in order to discourage elk from consuming the nearly 45,000 native trees and shrubs that were to be planted a few months after the fence’s completion, in March and April of 2011.

Exhausted, we slogged and waddled our way back to our truck, thinking only of hot coffee, steamy showers, and dry clothes, and then something caught my eye that immediately extinguished all my thoughts of discomfort.

I excitedly turned to share my appreciation with my fencing mates, pointing out the avian life dancing fearlessly on the earth only a pace away from our feet. But thoughts of comfort remained their top priority; they were not as intrigued by the dozen or so least sandpipers actively probing the mud for invertebrates. These sandpipers were so close, a spotting scope or pair of binoculars was not needed to observe their trademark yellow feet, which quickly differentiates them from other small shorebird species.

 

Least sandpipers are not the only shore or water birds seeking refuge within the Indian Jack Slough property. A few weeks earlier, as I assessed the property for upcoming restoration activities, several Wilson’s snipes had unexpectedly exploded beneath my feet. This typical behavior routinely makes my heart skip a beat.

The calls of either the greater or lesser yellowlegs could be heard nearby too, immediately triggering childhood memories of fishing with my family back in eastern Washington. I then heard the distinctive calls of American pipits, followed by a steady pilgrimage of small flocks of Taverner’s, cackling, and lesser Canada geese that circled and landed to forage on succulent forbs and grasses.

Great blue herons, mallards, pintails, great egrets, and many species of raptors could all be seen on the property, enjoying its fferings and not affected by the cold, wet weather or the persistent westerly wind punishing my crew and me. These observations seem ordinary for late winter and early spring in Wahkiakum County, but in this Columbia Land Trust gem, they were symbolic of a special renaissance slowly developing.

To fully appreciate these observations, a quick history lesson is essential. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, Indian Jack Slough and much of the adjoining areas were dominated by functional, freshwater intertidal wetlands that exhibited a myriad of habitat types. This included seasonal, semi-permanent, and permanent wetlands within lowland depressions, while Sitka spruce, scrub-shrub, and willow communities dominated the slightly elevated areas. Back then, the property readily flooded during the winter and spring months and served as a functional floodplain for the outflows that couldn’t be contained within the defined channels and natural deposition levees of Nelson Creek and Elochoman River, and even the Columbia River itself. This functioning system supported an immeasurable suite of Lower Columbia River Estuary–dependent species, such as salmonids, waterfowl, waterbirds, macro-micro invertebrates, amphibians, and even today’s state-endangered Columbian white-tailed deer.

As human settlements developed in the area, the need for commerce and economic prosperity quickly identified two problems: flood control and effective drainage. Thus, a levee was established along the southern and eastern boundaries of the property, which now supports Nelson Creek Road and ultimately denies hydraulic connectivity to Nelson Creek and the Elochoman River. State Route 4 was built along the western edge of the property, muting tidal exchanges between the Columbia River and what is now the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge. After the establishment of these levees and roadways, the Indian Jack Slough property began its transformation into, first, a cucumber farm, later a spot for grazing and haying, and finally a hybrid poplar plantation.

To achieve ideal conditions for drainage and maximize agricultural productivity, several miles of ditches were dug that eventually connected to Indian Jack Slough, where a pump station was installed to further facilitate drainage. Interestingly, prior to the Columbia Land Trust’s purchase of the property in 2006 (with funds made available through Section 6 of the Endangered Species Conservation Fund), the property had been subdivided into 30 development lots and briefly known as Cathlamet Flats.

As one might imagine, with such an extended period of disturbance and manipulation, restoration of this property would be difficult and labor intensive. Restoration objectives focused on returning the area to a more natural hydraulic regime, restoring native wetland vegetation that had been suppressed for nearly a century beneath non-native pasture grasses and reed canary grass, and re-establishing a woody component of willow, spruce, cedar, and other native trees and shrubs.

Columbia Land Trust recognized the value and importance of, for a lack of better wording, starting over from scratch. Land Trust staff worked diligently and established successful partnerships with the local chapter of the Audubon Society and the neighboring Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge. Restoration funds were secured through the generosity of the Julia Butler National Wildlife Refuge, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. With essential partnerships established and funds in hand, the initial wave of restoration began, primarily focusing on recovery of the stateendangered Columbian white-tailed deer.

In late summer of 2010 nearly 1 mile of ditches was filled, approximately 5 acres of wetlands were restored, and 50 acres of hybrid poplar were harvested and marketed as either pulp, saw logs, or the 12-foot posts needed for the elk fence. The construction of the fence began in the winter of 2010, much of it erected in 2 to 3 feet of standing water. By the spring of 2011, over 45,000 native trees and shrubs had been planted in the footprint of harvested poplars and are now protected within our 7,300-foot enclosure. Late this past summer, an additional 3,700 feet of historic drainage ditches were filled and nearly 5,100 feet of new channels were created or enhanced, furthering our goal of restoring the natural hydrology of the property. An additional 8 acres of the historic floodplain were also restored to benefit native wetland species.

The signs of revival within the property may be small and difficult for the casual observer to detect, but to me the changes are many and quite ignificant. Along with the local and migrating birds I’ve noticed, other details are subtly apparent: a common yellowthroat’s nest gently wedged within a Nootka rose, which was planted in 2010; countless amphibian egg masses within portions of the wetlands restored in 2010; a Sitka spruce planted in 2010, which now towers over my 6-foot frame; and the remarkable native wetland response within areas once smothered by reed canary grass and hybrid poplar.

The signs, however small, are bountiful and reflect a remarkable renaissance slowly taking hold throughout the property. A scar on my left hand will always serve as a reminder of my own efforts in the Indian Jack Slough’s transformation, and I’ll never forget that small flock of least sandpipers dancing at my feet that cold February afternoon. It must have been the first time in countless decades that they too were noticing the small changes taking place which were enticing enough that they stopped for a visit.

photo: Columbia Land Trust staff Aerial view of Indian Jack Slough

Jul
29

Sat 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

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