Letter: Restoration project needs experts who’ve walked beach


Small fish were jumping by the dozens in the Hidden Beach shallows, precisely where speakers from Northwest Straits and the Island County Marine Resources Committee just alleged to about 50 attendees at an informational meeting held at Greenbank Farm that small fish cannot survive unless an extremely disruptive and expensive “beach restoration” project is undertaken.

The “beach restoration” project would consist primarily of removing the 100-plus-year-old pilings and large rocks from the Hidden Beach waterfront.

As a general rule, my wife Beth and I favor wildlife habitat restoration. We have in fact restored our own four lots to accommodate almost every bird and terrestrial mammal native to Whidbey Island, either as full-time or transient users, and have photographed dozens of species from our own front windows and porch.

Beth and I also have no objection, in theory, to removing old pilings, rocks, or any other genuine obstacle to wildlife use. Beth is an accomplished wildlife photographer; I am an environmental journalist, of nearly 50 years experience on the beat, working from more than 40 nations, have received several national awards for my work, and back in 1990 was among the charter members of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

We are opposed, however, to costly and damaging boondoggles, proposed and advanced by people who have no authentic ecological understanding of the specific habitats they propose to alter.

The Hidden Beach “restoration” project is in that category.

For instance, we were told by alleged experts that the Hidden Beach habitat is “poor,” with a slide on screen showing the beach, littered with more driftwood than any other location visible from the Hidden Beach parking lot even with very powerful binoculars giving a view of miles and then were told, not five minutes later, that one purpose of the project is to encourage accumulation of driftwood.

We were told that the sand and sediment at Hidden Beach comes primarily from Holmes Harbor, to the south, when any frequent visitor with eyes can see that the sea wall protecting the Hidden Beach portion of the Beachcombers development obstructs that source, while the eroding cliffs just to the north continually replenish the sand and sediment in the Hidden Beach cove, and deposit fallen trees which eventually become driftwood, typically breaking loose, drifting south with the tides, and snagging behind the pilings at Hidden Beach.

We were told this evening that one purpose of the Hidden Beach “restoration” project is to help the prey base for predators, yet were also told that it is supposed to help protect prey species from predators.

We were also told that the Hidden Beach habitat presently does not accommodate the insects who feed the very population of small fish that we just saw jumping in abundance, eating the insects who supposedly do not exist there.

We were told that improving the salmon spawning habitat was a purpose of the Hidden Beach “restoration” project, until we pointed out that the two salmon spawning streams that entered the Saratoga Passage at either end of Hidden Beach circa 150 years ago and in the middle — still discernible in aerial photos — were fed by freshwater streams and beaver ponds that no longer exist, flowing respectively out of the vicinity of Nantucket, Silver Cloud and Deer Bush/Cuthbert roads.

In short, as we explained, there is no longer a freshwater supply to feed a salmon spawning stream. Then, suddenly, restoring salmon spawning habitat was not a purpose of the Hidden Beach “restoration” project.

We were told this evening that the Hidden Beach “restoration” project is necessary to provide a prey base for predators, including orcas. Unfortunately no one seemed to be present from the Orca Project to confirm that orcas have seldom been seen more often at Hidden Beach than just this year.

Gray whales fed off Hidden Beach this spring for 14 days in a row and about 20 days altogether. Harbor seals are present year-round. Sea lions are frequent seasonal visitors. River otters breed in the cliffs nearby and are also frequent seasonal visitors.

As many as 19 bald eagles at a time gather at Hidden Beach at low tide almost every day, with multiple nesting pairs in the area. Great horned owls, golden eagles and osprey are occasional visitors. Kingfishers, great blue herons, and of course crows, ravens and a variety of gull species are daily visitors.

Half a dozen species of ducks overwinter at Hidden Beach. Red-footed guillemots nest in the cliffs (among other birds and some small mammals, including rare creeping voles.)

Hidden Beach is, in short, one of the best places for watching wildlife, especially predators, of anywhere in the region — and most definitely not a habitat which is to be lightly and carelessly disrupted, at great taxpayer expense, by bringing in the sort of heavy equipment that would be necessary to remove the sparse remaining pilings and the big rocks.

Incidentally, those pilings are in daily use by practically all of the avian predators, and if anyone cares to scoop handfuls of sand from around the big rocks to see what lives there, that person will discover an extremely rich invertebrate micro-ecology, including sand dollars, chitons, several crab species, mussels, clams, barnacles, ocean scallops, and ghost shrimp.

Hidden Beach, in short, does not need “habitat restoration.”

What Hidden Beach needs are “experts” who have actually walked the beach with open eyes on multiple occasions in multiple seasons, at high tide and low tide, who know what they are actually seeing and do not insult our intelligence with abstract, hypothetical presentations based on generalities applicable to various other places, but not to here.

Appreciating your attention.

Merritt and Beth Clifton


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