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The once and future marsh: An Oregon Coast Salt Marsh to be restored

In Bandon, Oregon, a salt marsh is re-engineered

By Katy Muldoon for the Oregonian

Photo_of_Bandon_Marsh_National_Wildlife_RefugeRoy Lowe steers a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pickup through a pock-marked pasture where cows grazed for more than a century. Before the mud gets too deep, he parks, steps out and climbs atop a dike that has held back the South Coast's cool, green Coquille River all those years.

It won't much longer.

Late this summer, after more than a decade of planning, partnerships and property deals, years of scientific study, engineering and a little experimentation, the river will spill across 418 acres, marking the biggest tidal marsh restoration ever attempted in Oregon.

With about $9.5 million worth of human assistance, nature will re-craft itself. The daily tidal flush will help build a food chain long gone, and when it does, the rich array of fish and birds that sustained native tribes for thousands of years at this bend in the river should return.

For scientists, wildlife managers and the public, the project provides a rare opportunity to watch a large swath of long-degraded habitat heal.

For Lowe, project leader for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Complex, where he has worked since 1985, the restoration represents the most significant undertaking of his 33-year career.

"This is the crowning jewel," he says. "When you restore a marsh, it's forever."

Pull off U.S. 101 north of downtown Bandon, look west and, depending on the season, you might spot black-bellied plovers, dunlins or whimbrels feeding in driftwood-rimmed mudflats. Ducks mine the water. Herons, falcons and osprey ply the sky.

The flats and shallows near the Coquille's mouth are an all-you-can-eat buffet of worms, clams, crab, shrimp and fish.

Migrating shorebirds and waterfowl are so dependent on the food supply that Congress established Bandon Marsh as a national wildlife refuge in 1983.

It wasn't long before Fish and Wildlife set its sights on expanding the refuge...

The task of naming the new marsh fell to the Coquille Indian Tribe. Coquilles, as well as members of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, inhabited the land before settlers arrived, living off chinook and coho salmon, cutthroat and steelhead trout. Remnants of the wood weirs they used to trap fish are still visible at the river's edge.

"People used these estuary resources very heavily and were very dependent on them, given the remains we see on these archaeological sites," says Don Ivy, the Coquille Tribe's cultural resources program coordinator.

The Coquilles named the unit Ni-les'tun (pronounced NYE-les-ton), which means small fish dam in the river...
Salt marshes were once considered worthless.

Pioneers diked and drained them for agriculture. Developers built atop them. Entrepreneurs harvested salt from them.

Today, scientists know that marshes play critical roles in everything from the aquatic food web to protecting coastlines from storm surges and flooding. They consider tidal marshes among Earth's most fertile habitats, and have worked since the 1960s to preserve them...

Transforming pasture into marsh is no simple task, particularly at Ni-les'tun, where over the decades farmers cut 15 miles of drainage ditches, built dikes and installed tide gates.

This summer, it all will go, replaced by five miles of channels designed to mimic those that snake through a natural marsh...

In September, when earth movers dismantle the tide gates and lower the dikes, everything will change.

Bill Bridgeland can't predict exactly what will happen or when. But the refuge's restoration biologist figures that... (Read The Oregonian Article for more)

"This," he says, "is gonna be really cool."