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Coastal wetlands.

Coastal Wetlands Twelve novice kayakers climbed into boats bobbing on Monterey Bay's Elkhorn Slough. But before they set out, their guide asked them to explain why they had risen so early on a weekend day to paddle through a marsh.

"I'm a birder," answered one, brandishing the binoculars to prove it. But another admitted, "I don't want to be here. My husband made me come."

That second response echoes in a lot of us. When it comes to wetlands, we don't especially want to be there. Murky repositories for old mattresses--that's how we think of them.

No wonder, then, that many of the West's wetlands have been destroyed and put to "better" uses--diked for pastureland, drained for farmland, filled to hold industrial parks. Monterey Bay has lost three-quarters of its historic wetlands, California as a whole a like percentage.

Preserving these neglected lands has emerged as one of the most urgent environmental issues of the 1990s. From San Diego to Seattle, citizens and government agencies are fighting to save them. Why? If you've ever cast a line for salmon, dined on Dungeness crab, or admired Canada geese flying in v-formation, you have a wetland to thank. Without them, the West would be infinitely poorer.

The West has interior fresh-water wetlands and coastal salt-water wetlands. This article focuses on the latter. Especially in spring, they are marvelous places to visit. Venture in, and you'll likely become a converet. That's what happened to our doubtful kayaker. All it took was a glimpse of Elkhorn's riches: sandpipers skittering across mudflats, otters and avocets a great blue heron stalking fish to stab with amurderous beak.

On the following 8 pages, we help you take a closer, more appreciative look.

Biologically, coastal wetlands are among the richest areas on earth. Here, land meets water> salt water meets fresh> upland gives way to salt marsh, to mud flat, to open sea. in suhc places, where very different habitats converge, a complex mix of animal and plant life can flourish.

Our depiction of a coastal wetland is based on Elkhorn Slough, on California's Monterey Bay. Elkhorn is an estuary, whihc means that it's open to the ocean but receives fresh water on its inland end. By definition, estuaries are brackish and influenced by tides (their name comes from the Latin aestus, tide). From Washington's Nisqually Delta to California's Morro Bay, most of the West's coastal wetlands lie along estuaries.

Elkhorn Slough shares many characteristics with other wetlands of the Pacific Coast. Most contain the habitats--upland, fresh-water marsh, salt-water marsh, mud flat, open water--pictured here. Many of the bird, fish, and invertebrate species found at Elkhorn can be seen elsewhere along the Pacific Coast. But there also are differences: Tijuana Estuary, near San Diego, is home to the endangered California least tern, which does not breed here> Padilla Bay, in Washington, is thick with eelgrass, which at Elkhorn has all but vanished.

Unfortunately, Elkhorn shares an additional characteristic with most other wetlands: it has been altered by human intervention. Its once-luxuriant eelgrass beds were largely destroyed when dredging allowed stronger tides to enter the slough. Though the clapper rail we picture was once common at Elkhorn Slough, it has not been seen in recent years--a testimony to the fact that, even when given protection, coastal welands are finely balanced systems vulnerable to disruption.

The two largest, most interesting coastal wetlands in California are also the two most accessible. Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and San Francisco Bay national Wildlife Refuge both offer visitor centers, docent programs, and trails that let you explore without getting your feet wet. This month, both draw waterfowl and shorebirds in concentrations to make even a novice bird-watcher come away feeling as keen-eyed as Roger Tory Peterson.

Bring binoculars and a field guide. And try to linger long enough to see slough and baylands at both high and low tides.

Elkhorn Slough: hiking and kayaking

It lies hardly more than a few par fives from the famous fairways of the Monterey Peninsula. It's watched over by the smokestacks of a PG&E plant and sliced in two by railroad racks. But Elkhorn Slough reserve is a world unto itself: 1,400 acres of salt marsh, tidal mud flats, and open water make it one of the largest undisturbed coastal wetlands in California. Says Mark Silberstein of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, "This palce really restores your sense of wonder. You get more of a feeling of the cycles of nature here than anywhere else I know."

Elkhorn is one of 18 reserves established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as centers of estuarine research and education. (Others in the West include Tijuana Estuary, near San Diego> South Slough, Oregon> and Padilla Bay, Washington> for more on these see pages 88 and 89.) It's managed by the California Department of Fish and Game, with help from the private Elkhorn Slough Foundation.

To reach the reserve, take State Highway 1 to Moss Landing, about 20 miles northeast of Monterey. turn east on dolan Road and go 3 miles to Elkhorn Road> turn north and go 2 miles to the visitor center, at 1700 Elkhorn. The center and the reserve are open from 9 to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays> for information, call (408) 728-2822 or 728-5939.

Inside the center are exhibits on the slough's plant and animal life, and a bookstore. Pick up the paperback Elkhorn Slough, by Mark Silberstein and Eileen Campbell (Monterey Bay Aquarium Natural History Series, 1989> $8.95).

The slough trail system begins just west of the visitor center. The Long Valley Loop runs 0.8 mile, the Five Finger Loop 1.1 miles, and the South marsh Loop 2.2 miles> if you like, you can combine them. Elkhorn Slough docents lead weekend walks at 10 and 1.

Pause at the trails' start for an overview. Like most coastal wetlands, Elkhorn Slough is geologically young--formed about 15,000 years ago as sea levels rose and sediments filled a shallow arm of the Pacific, and the Salinas River and Elkhorn Creek meandered across the resulting mud flats. Coastal wetlands are created this way, as oceans and rivers rise and fall over coastal plains. Because such plains are rare along the West's relatively mountainous coast, wetlands are rare, too. That makes each one all the more vital to the animals that depend on this environment for survival.

And it's a Noah's Ark's worth of animals, as you see if you follow any trail to the slough's edge. As the tide goes out, shore-birds--godwits, dowitchers, sandpipers-- stream from the salt marsh to probe the mud flats for food. Indeed, more western sandpipers are found at Elkhorn Slough than any other place on the West Coast.

If you take South Marsh Loop beyond the railroad tracks to the edge of the main channel, you'll see where biologists are studying Elkhorn. Much of the work focuses on understanding two current threats here: pesticide runoff from surrounding agricultural fields, and sedimentation from erosion of nearby hillsides.

Kirby Park. A second access point is at Kirby Park, on Elkhorn Road 4 miles north of the visitor center. From here, a 1 1/2-mile wheelchair-accessible trail leads through slough lands owned by the Nature Conservancy.

Kayaking the slough. Ideal for beginning kayakers, Elkhorn waters are calm (though you may have to paddle hard against tides and afternoon winds), and you see marine life--rays, skates, and otters--hard to spot from shore. Montery Bay Kayaks runs naturalist-led tours ($55 for all day). For information and reservations, write 693 Del Monte Ave., Monterey 93940, or call 373-5357.

Wetlands of San Francisco Bay:

"Literally a land of plenty"

"The wild geese, and every species of waterfowl, darkened the surface of every bay and firth ... When disturbed they arose to fly, the sound of their wings was like distant thunder ... It was literally a land of plenty."

Trapper George Yount wrote that about San Francisco Bay in 1833. Even today, the wetlands and wildlife of San Francisco Bay can thrill on a March morning. It's estimated that half of the waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway winter here--as many as 800,000 ducks, geese, and swans at one time. Shorebirds congregate in equally impressive numbers.

To view the spectacle, visit one of the 54 sites listed in the San Francisco Bay Area Wetland Wildlife Viewing Guide, available, free, by writing or calling San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Box 524, Newark 94560> (415) 792-0222.

Four of our favorite view points:

San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Marshlands Road, Newark, open 10 to 5 daily> 792-0222. See the excellent exhibits at the visitor center, then walk some of the refugee's 30 miles of trails. For a schedule of guided walks, call the number above.

Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center, from State 92, take Clawiter Road exit to Breakwater Ave.> 881-6751. This 200-acre restored marsh has 8 miles of trails.

Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center, Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto> 329-2506. A 120-acre marsh, with guided walks on 7 miles of trails.

Martinez Regional Shoreline, at the foot of Ferry Street. Three miles of trails run through a 100-acre marsh.

The future of the bay's wetlands

Some of San Francisco Bay's wetland news is good. Wholesale destruction of tidal wetlands has been halted, thanks to the regulatory efforts of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is doubling in size to 43,000 acres. At the 1,500-acre Cullinan Ranch, added to San Pablo Bay N.W.R., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Coastal Conservancy have embarked on one of the largest marsh restoration projects in the nation. The National Estuarine Research Reserve system is studying the creation of a new reserve in the north bay. Finally,

Finally, the EPA- and State of California-sponsored San Francisco Estuary Project is attempting to promote better management of the bay's wetlands and waters. Its publication, An Introduction to the Ecology of the San Francisco Estuary, makes for interesting reading--for a copy, call or write the project, Box 2050, Oakland 94604> 464-7990.

Still, the bay's future is uncertain. Protection of seasonal wetlands is the most immediate concern. These areas are dry much of the year but bloom with ponds during the rainy season. Many landowners are anxious that they not be classed as wetlands, with development restrictions the designation entails. Environmentalists see seasonal wetlands as vital habitat for waterfowl and other species.

Another worry is the fate of the California clapper rail. This delicate waterbird once thrived in wetlands like Elkhorn Slough and San Francisco Bay. Today, its presence at Elkhorn is doubtful, and the San Francisco Bay population is rapidly dwindling (700 in 1986, fewer than 500 today). Richard Coleman, manager of the San Francisco Bay refuge, attributes decline to loss of cordgrass habitat, contamination from industrial toxins, and vulnerability to introduced predators like the red fox. His warning on the need to act is persuasive: "We can't wait too long. We only have 500 sets of genes out there."

Elkhorn Slough and San Francisco Bay are not the only important wetlands on the Pacific Coast. Here we list seven of the most easily visited--all with trails, visitor centers, or guided tours.

To visit coastal wetlands we've omitted, several books may prove helpful. The California Coastal Resource Guide (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987> $14.95) is sold at bookstores. Wetlands Walks (Washington State Department of Ecology Publication #89-30> free) is available by mail from the Department of Ecology, Publications Office, Mail Stop PV-11, Olympia, Wash. 98504. Also useful is the Washington Public Shore Guide (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1986> $14.95).

1. Padilla Bay National Estuarine

Research Reserve, Mount Vernon

Eelgrass is one of the most important estuary species. Floating on the ocean's surface, the flowering plant (not a seaweed) provides habitat for juvenile Dungeness crab and food supply for waterfowl like black brant. Few places in the West possess more eelgrass than Padilla Bay, 60 miles north of Seattle. The grass covers 7,500 acres of bay> about 2,500 lie in the reserve.

Padilla's Breazeale Interpretive Center holds aquariums and exhibits. From here, walk to an observation tower to view brant congregating on the mud flats, or hike the three reserve trails. Hours are 10 to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays.

From Seattle, take I-5 north to Burlington. Exit west on Wilson road, then drive west 8 miles to Bayview-Edison Road> turn north and go 1/2 mile to the Breazeale Interpretive Center. Hours are 10 to 5 Wednesdays through Saturdays> for an event schedule, write or call the reserve, 1043 Bayview-Edison Road, Mount Vernon 98273> (206) 428-1558.

Northwest Sea Ventures offers half-day kayak tours of the bay for $25> write or call Box 522, Anacortes 98221> 293-3692.

2. Nisqually National

Wildlife Reguge, Olympia

A green patchwork of salt- and fresh-water marsh shadowed by Mount Rainier, this 2,800-acre refuge hosts up to 20,000 ducks and geese this time of year. The 5 1/2- mile Brown Farm Dike Trail leads past marshes and through riparian habitat, home to grosbeaks and warblers.

The Twin Barns Education Center contains displays on Nisqually and its wildlife> it's open weekends from 10 to 2.

The refuge, open dawn to dusk daily, is 20 miles south of Tacoma. Take I-5 to Exit 114 and follow the signs. Entrance fee is $2 per family. For information, write or call the refuge at 100 Brown Farm Rd.> Olympia 98506> (206) 753-9467.

3. Grays Harbor proposed

National Wildlife Reguge, Hoquiam

Bowerman Basin--the centerpiece of the proposed 1,800-acre refuge--is a 500-acre tidal flat. It comes into its own in late April, when roughly 500,000 to 1 million shorebirds stop on their way north to Alaska's Copper River Delta.

From U.S. 101 in Hoquiam, take State 109 west to the high school on the edge of town. Turn left on Paulson Road and go 1/2 mile to its end, then drive right 1 mile to the Bowerman Field airport. View birds from access road> respect private property signs. For details, call (206) 753-9467.

4. South Slough National Estuarine

Research Reserve, Charleston

The southern arm of Coos Bay, South Slough was the first national estuarine reserve in the nation. It encompasses 600 acres of tidelands, 100 acres of freshwater marsh, and 3,700 acres of upland.

Start with the exhibits and films at the South Slough visitor center, then amble on the Estuary Study Trail, which takes you onto dikes for views of the slough's ducks and geese. Until Memorial Day, the center is open 8:30 to 4:30 weekdays> Memorial to Labor Day it's open daily. Reserve trails are open daily year-round.

To reach South Slough from Highway 101 in Coos Bay, take Cape Arago Highway west 6 miles to Charleston, then turn south on Seven Devils Road and continue 4 miles to the visitor center. For information, including an activity calendar, write or call South Slough N.E.R.R., Box 5417, Charleston 97420> (503) 888-5558.

5. Morro Bay

Guarded by Morro Rock, this is one of the largest, most pristine estuaries in California. It's also the focus of a unique preservation effort. Like many estuaries, Morro Bay is filling in with silt created by erosion on surrounding hills. To prevent this, the California Coastal Conservancy has funded erosion control projects. It also hopes to acquire land in the bay watershed, which it will convert back into riparian habitat to trap sediment.

From San Luis Obispo, take State Highway 1 about 13 miles west, following signs for Morro Bay State Park. The Morro Bay Museum of Natural History, on State Park Road, is a good place to start exploring. It's open 10 to 5 daily (admission $2 adults, $1 children) and offers exhibits, films, and guided walks> call (805) 772-2694. In a eucalyptus grove near the museum is a large heron rookery, and chances are good you'll see snowy egrets in the pickleweed marsh along the south and east shores.

The new Sweet Springs trial leads through a fresh-water marsh at the bay's south end> enter from Ramona Street.

Book kayak tours ($20 for 2 hours) through Morro Bay Kayak and Canoe, 1920 Main St., Morro Bay 93442> (805) 772-1119.

6. Upper Newport Bay Ecological

Reserve, Newport Beach

This reserve could almost be classed as a miracle: 750 acres set aside amid some of the priciest real estate in the world. It was established through the efforts of a citizens' group, Friends of Newport Bay, which continues to sponsor walks and to lobby for wetland preservation.

From the Pacific Coast Highway (State 1) in Newport Beach, turn north on Jamboree Road, then go west on Backbay Drive, which runs along the reserve's east side. Park at one of the turnouts, hike a trail, and keep an eye out for endangered least terns and clapper rails.

7. Tijuana River National Estuarine

Research Reserve, Imperial Beach

Southernmost of California's coastal wetlands, 1,700-acre Tijuana Estuary takes in dunes, salt marsh, and uplands that are home to egrets and the endangered light-footed clapper rail. A visitor center has just opened, and 5 miles of trail lead through the estuary. It's best seen on guided walks--these leave at 9:30 A.M. the first two Saturdays of the month.

The estuary is also the site of much wetland research. The Pacific Estuarine Research Laboratory is located here and is helping to restore is lost cordgrass habitat.

From San Diego, take I-5 south 10 miles to Imperial Beach. Then turn west on Coronado Boulevard and go 2 1/2 miles to Third Street> turn left and go one block. Estuary hours are 8 to 4 daily. For information, write or call the reserve, 301 Caspian Way, Imperial Beach 91932> (619) 575-3613.

Wetland loss in the West has been near-catastrophic. From Puget Sound to San Diego Bay statistics are the same: only 10 to 20 percent of coastal wetlands remain.

But, the tides may have turned in wetlands' favor. On the federal level, George Bush vowed there would be "no net loss" of wetlands during his administration. Says David Davis, director of EPA's office of Wetland Protection, "Wetlands have jumped an order of magnitude as an issue. They're now a national concern."

Joseph Uravitch, chife of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Estuarine Research Reserve program, says that preserving coastal wetlands makes simple economic sense--even when it comes to grocery bills. Upwards of 50 percent of commercial fish caught in the United States depend on estuaries for their existence, he points out. "If you want to get into the reality of fish as a food source, you kill the estuaries, you kill the fish."

Charged with protecting wetlands are NOAA's Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Environmentalists applaud the fact that these agencies have turned their attention to the problem. But they worry the government lacks money and manpower to watchdog the resource. "It's easy to say, save the wetlands," says Daryl Scheibel, former coordinator of the Seattle-based group, Wetlands Watch. "But the troubles is that while bureaucrats argue about how to save them, wetlands are still being lost one by one."

On the state level, news is mixed, but encouraging. Last year the Washington State Legislature failed to approved governor Booth Gardner's tough Wetland Protection Act--but many of its provisions have been enacted in an executive order. Oregon's State Lands Division is conducting its first wetland inventory. In California, the state Coastal Conservancy has spent $40 million to acquire and restore wetlands. After years of struggle, citizens' groups have won a compromise preserving most of Ballona Lagoon, Los Angeles County's last undisturbed wetland. And the city of San Diego is establishing its first wetland advisory committee.

Mitigation: could you replace one

original Van Gogh with two prints?

One of the hot issues of wetland protection is mitigation: the policy that allows developers to fill in wetlands provided they create new wetlands nearby. That can be easier said than done. With their complicated hydrology, geology, and biology, wetlands are difficult to duplicate.

Dr. Joy Zedler of San Diego State University estimates a manmade wetland can, at most, provide 60 percent of the biological wealth of a natural wetland. "It isn't enough," she says, "that it looks green. It has to be a functional ecosystem. Two mediocre manmade acres don't make up for one natural. Wetlands are like priceless masterpieces. Could you replace one original Van Gogh with two prints?"

How to save a wetland? Huntington

Beach says, "You don't give up"

Meanwhile, some of the most encouraging wetland news is the result of hard work by local citizens' groups. Two inspirational stories come from opposite ends of California: Huntington Beach and Arcata.

In Huntington Beach, on the Orange County coast 35 miles south of Los Angeles, wetland lovers faced special pressures: no part of the West has lost more of its wetlands than Southern California.

Yet a group called Amigos de Bolsa Chica has beaten the odds. The wetland it has focused its energies on takes in 1,100 acres. Bolsa Chica estuary is anything but wilderness. The busy Pacific Coast Highway slices to the west of the marsh, and oil derricks dot its other borders.

But for a number of species of birds, Bolsa Chica is a vital stop on the Pacific Coast. One of the most prominent residents is the endangered California least tern.

So when the oil company that owned much of the estuary announced plans to turn it into a marina and housing development, many neighbors were alarmed. Six of them came together to form Amigos and began a campaign to halt--or at least drastically alter--the development plans.

The proposed development had to be approved by both the California Coastal Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers. Amigos members attended meeting upon meeting in Sacramento and Washington, gave estuary tours, sold bumper stickers, and grew--to 2,000 members.

Last year the land developer and the Amigos came to an agreement. Houses will rise along the fringe. But the wetland itself will be preserved--and, with funding from the developer, restored.

Any advice for other would-be wetland savers? Says Amigos Executive Director Adrianne Morrison, "Too often, volunteer groups get a head of steam up and then just dissipate. Amigos hasn't. You go through proper channels and just keep grinding. You don't give up."

To visit Bolsa Chica, take Pacific Coast Highway (State 1) to Warner Avenue> a parking area is just south of the intersection. From here, a 1 1/2-mile trail winds through the lagoon. For guided walks, call (714) 897-7003.

Wetland alchemy in Arcata

This 14,000-person university town on Humboldt Bay, in northern California, had a serious ailment: waste-water spewing directly into the Pacific. The remedy was not a high-priced treatment plant, but bulrushes and cattails of a wetland.

Wetlands can be highly efficient as waste-treatment facilities. Microorganisms that grow on the roots of some wetland plants feed on the nutrients in effluent--and thereby help clean the water.

By recognizing the potential for this natural alchemy, Arcata became a pioneer. In the late 1970s, a massive new sewage plant was proposed. The city engineer Frank Klopp and Humboldt State professors George Allen and Robert Gearheart said why not create a wetland instead?

The results are 76-acre fresh-water and 17-acre salt-water marshes on the shores of Arcata Bay. An existing plant handles primary sewage treatment. From it, waste-water is pumped into oxidation ponds, then the marshes. Here, over two months, bacteria turn nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden water into clean water. Water returns to the primary facility, where it's chlorinated and dechlorinated, then released into Humboldt Bay.

The system handles 2.5 million gallons of effluent a day. And it handles 200 species of birds--for the marshes also serve as Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, enjoyed by nearly 100,000 visitors a year.

Arcata Marsh is open dawn to dusk> from U.S. 101, take Samoa Boulevard west to South I Street and turn south to the sanctuary. The Arcata Audubon Society leads guided walks Saturdays at 8:30> call (707) 822-6918. At 736 F Street, Arcata City Hall, open weekdays from 9 to 5, has interesting exhibits on the project.
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Title Annotation:northern California
Article Type:Directory
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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