From The Olympian
Feb 10, 2020
By Sara Gentzler
The woods above West Bay Drive may be unassuming from the roadway that hugs Budd Inlet’s shoreline. But venture to the other side of the woods, on Rogers Street Northwest near the Olympia Food Co-op, and you’ll find an evolving pocket of restoration and conservation. “It’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity,” Dan Einstein said, looking out over the inlet from a bluff in those woods. “I think it’s really important to make a statement, as the capital city, that we can find this balance between a functioning ecosystem and our own lives.” Einstein is the co-founder, and now the president of the board, for Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Preservation — OlyEcosystems, for short. The current focus of the nonprofit is to restore and preserve West Bay Woods — that unassuming forest above West Bay Drive. “What we want is to develop a sustainable interface between our urban life — which is inevitable — and our natural life, in order to have ecosystem balance,” Einstein explained while leading The Olympian on a rainy tour through the woods last week.
West Bay Woods is what OlyEcosystems calls a “remnant forest,” a stretch of wooded land that includes West Bay Creek and was once teeming with old growth before it was clear-cut and used for various purposes, said Einstein, a professor of engineering at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey. The oldest of the trees now in the area are estimated to be at least 150 years old, and the woods contain Olympia’s lone great blue heron colony. In fact, that rookery is part of the reason the coalition was formed in the first place.
A GROWING REMNANT FOREST
Neighbors founded OlyEcosystems in 2014, in response to a proposed townhome development in the woods. An access road was slated to pass through the heronry, which prompted concerned neighbors to take action. Alicia Elliott bought parcels around the potential access road with preservation in mind, and donated the land to OlyEcosystems in 2015, Einstein said. In 2017, the nonprofit bought the flat parcel of logged land where the townhomes were supposed to be built. Its effort was recently amplified by a $1.3 million donation from the Angela Bowen Conservancy Foundation.
Dr. Angela J. Bowen was a well-known physician and local philanthropist who died in 2017. She founded the Western Institutional Review Board to ensure that the health and rights of patients in clinical trials were protected, according to The Olympian’s previous reporting. Among a long list of other community contributions and achievements, Bowen donated an office building to South Puget Sound Community College, and bought and protected a 3.2-acre rhododendron and azalea garden in northeast Olympia that she eventually donated to the city. The recent donation added 7 acres to OlyEcosystems’ property in the woods, expanding the total area conserved to 18.5 acres.
Invasive species threaten what’s left of the woods, whether it be ivy that escaped from adjacent residents’ yards, Himalayan blackberry bushes, or holly from an age when the land was part of a holiday-wreath operation. Ivy can take over a forest floor, Einstein said, and when diversity goes, so goes the diversity of birds and pollinators the plants attract. In some cases, the weight of thick ivy has choked and splintered trees, bringing them to the ground.
With the help of volunteers and support of several funders, the nonprofit has been weeding out those invasive species, laying down mulch to prevent more weeds from sprouting, and replacing them with native plants. “We have to be responsible stewards, and thus far we haven’t been,” OlyEcosystems Restoration Director Sarah Hamman told The Olympian on the tour. “This is an opportunity to change that path, hopefully, at least on the West Bay shoreline, to show what’s possible here.” A diversified environment becomes a more welcome habitat to not just herons, but fox, deer, mountain beaver, songbirds, owls, frogs, salamanders, moles, and other species that live there, according to Einstein and Hamman.
NATURE’S FILTERING SYSTEM
Beyond habitat quality, restoration work is aimed at improving water quality. The forest covers a hill between a residential neighborhood and Budd Inlet, portions of which, according to Washington’s Department of Ecology, don’t meet water quality standards for dissolved oxygen. Contamination in the inlet is known to come from several sources, one of which is stormwater. Building up the forest floor means creating a more effective filter to keep urban contaminants out of the sound, said Einstein and Hamman, who is a restoration ecologist for the Center of Natural Lands Management. The nonprofit also is working on building up greener neighborhood infrastructure.
Already, OlyEcosystems — with the help of the City of Olympia, in one case — has built two rain gardens to direct water from the neighborhood through plants designed to filter the water and basins that slow down its journey from street to sound. It isn’t going about all this conservation and restoration alone. For example, Hamman said they’ll be working with the Washington Trail Association to design trail routes, with the goal to create up to a mile of trail that connects the woods with West Bay Park and, ultimately, to downtown. Currently, the public can use existing paths that range from walkable to primitive to explore the woods. Hamman said they’d like the area to be “an accessible green space for the community.” Frequent work parties are a chance for volunteers and teams from other nonprofits to help build up the forest, and Einstein said there are plenty of chances to donate skills on one of the organization’s various committees.
IN CONCERT WITH THE PEOPLE OF THE WATER
As it pursues its goals, Hamman told The Olympian OlyEcosystems is prioritizing communication with the Squaxin Island Tribe.
“This is Squaxin Island Tribe land, and so we want to identify, recognize, and incorporate the priorities the tribe has for these parcels and for the shoreline, because there’s thousands of years of history of them using this area,” she said. The Steh-Chass people of the Squaxin Island Tribe, who are considered “the people of the water,” have been taking care of the land in Budd Inlet for millennia, Scott Steltzner, fisheries biologist for Squaxin Island Tribe Natural Resources, told The Olympian. And that’s part of what the natural resources department does today. The department works with various agencies and organizations on restoration and conservation in Budd Inlet, Steltzner said. For instance, it collaborated with the city and port of Olympia to develop an assessment of environmental restoration opportunities for the West Bay shoreline published in 2016. “OlyEcosystems reached out to us and presented what they’re doing, and we’re all for it,” Steltzner said, referring specifically to the work in West Bay. It aligns with the preservation and restoration the department would like to see.
“It’s one small piece of the giant puzzle, and you need to keep putting the pieces down to move forward,” Steltzner said. While there are a few big projects in the area, “otherwise, these relatively small groups like OlyEcosystems are really important, because they’re the ones chipping away at this.”
Correction: The park below West Bay Woods is called West Bay Park. Within West Bay Park is an overlook that’s unofficially called Rotary Point, a partnership between the City of Olympia and the Rotary Clubs of Thurston County, as confirmed by Parks Maintenance Manager Sylvana Neihuser. This story originally used the term “Rotary Park” to describe that area.