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Ecoagriculture Snapshot » Wetland Rehabilitation in the Skagit River Delta, Washington, USA
Skagit River Delta, Washington, USA
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Study Location
TNC Fischer Slough Property, southern view. Source: Kirsten Morse
Fischer Slough Property, eastern view. Source: Kirsten Morse
Snow geese in a Skagit farm field. Source: Kirsten Morse
Dave Hedlin’s fields, before and after. Source: Kirsten Morse

Farmers and environmentalists in this area of the Western United States have traditionally been in conflict, with farmers staunchly defending their livelihood and environmentalists fiercely opposing farming and development in favor of conservation. This dynamic is shifting, however, thanks in part to a Nature Conservancy project, which is renting land from farmers in the Skagit River Delta valley in order to seasonally flood it to create a habitat for migrating birds.


Originally a tidal wetland, the Skagit River Delta has been used for agriculture since the 1860s when European immigrants constructed a network of earthen dikes to capture land from the saltwater delta and prevent the river from flooding their farms. Today, tens of thousands of acres of farmland produce about 80 crops of commercial significance, including seeds used to grow beets, spinach, and cabbage around the world, many of the red potatoes eaten in the United States, and vegetables and dairy products sent to farmers’ markets and restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.


The produce, however, comes at a price. With the growth of agriculture, more than a dozen species of waterfowl as well as native salmon have declined primarily because of loss of the local wetlands. The Skagit delta functions as an important stop on the Pacific flyway, hosting one of the largest and most diverse concentrations of wintering birds of prey on the continent, as well as more than 150,000 dabbling ducks and 65,000 shorebirds. While farmers in the area have a strong conservation ethic, they are not willing or able to sacrifice their land or their living for wildlife.        


Through the Farming for Nature project initiated by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), however, they are able to support both their families and the delta. Three farmers are involved in the project, and each has committed about 70 acres, a third of which will be flooded with a few inches of fresh water in the spring, fall, and winter, creating shallow ponds that will fill with invertebrates and worms. TNC pays the farmers a total of $350,000 from public and private funds for three years of their labor, expenses, and the use of their land. In a preview of what stakeholders hope will happen, farmer David Hedlin’s parcel accidentally flooded last November, attracting a host of wintering waterfowl, including trumpeter swans, coots, mallards, teal, and wigeon ducks.  


Rather than relying solely on experts from outside the region, TNC is consulting people who have lived and farmed in the delta for generations in order to learn how to rehabilitate the land. On recommendations from local farmers, the land in the Farming for Wildlife project has been planted with a mixture of clover and grass to enrich the soil. While a third of the 210 acres of land rented by TNC will be flooded for birds, another third will be fenced as pasture for dairy cows and the rest will be mowed or otherwise left alone to further improve soil fertility.


Scientists from TNC are analyzing soil samples from the Delta to asses whether shallow flooding might improve soil fertility as much as cow manure and mowed grass. Eventually, TNC would like to persuade farmers to add wetlands to their regular crop rotation.


"If 100 years from now," said Mr. Hedlin, one of the farmers, "there are healthy viable family farms in this valley and waterfowl and wildlife and salmon in the river, then everyone wins."



Adapted from: Jessica Kowal, New York Times. 2006. Farmers and Conservationists Form a Rare Alliance, December 27

and http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/washington/preserves/art12970.html.


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