Cascades to Olympics program annual update 2021

Cascades to Olympics program annual update 2021

Conservation Northwest / Oct 12, 2021 / Cascades to Olympics, Connecting Habitat

A time to reflect on another year of work for habitat connectivity, Chehalis Basin watershed protection, wildlife mapping, natural climate mitigation and more!

“The trials and tribulations of the last two years have tested our minds, bodies, and spirits, but the adversity that has been so difficult to overcome is also the crucible where resilient things are forged.”
-Brian Stewart, our
Cascades to Olympics Program Coordinator based in Lewis County

Now in its third year, Conservation Northwest’s Cascades to Olympics program has exceeded expectations, and despite the challenges of the pandemic, continues to work toward connecting and restoring habitat between the Cascade Mountains, Willapa Hills and Olympic Peninsula. As summer fades to fall, the passing of another season offers a moment to reflect on our progress and achievements this year.

Satsop Habitat Connectivity Restoration Project

Many volunteers and a charismatic local landowner have been helping us work with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to improve upon an existing underpass where Highway 12 crosses over the Satsop River, with potential for Roosevelt elk, black bears, cougars and other wildlife to use the bridge as an undercossing.

Blackberry removal and native plant rescue along underneath Highway 12 along the Satop River

But this location was choked with an impenetrable mono-culture of invasive Himalayan blackberry. Utilizing the efforts of project volunteers, well over three football fields have been removed. In the process, we have saved numerous native plants, exposed hazards to mechanized removal like old barbwire fencing, and have already freed up space for animal movement in this corridor, which has been a barrier to wildlife for decades.

In addition, we are clearing a small area for the landowner to replant with corn, returning productive agricultural land to the local community, which has lost a great deal of their economically productive land to floods, avulsions, and acquisitions.

Outcomes of our Satsop Bridge project are win-win-win as it serves wildlife, the community, and builds climate resilience into the landscape. The first phase is well underway and on schedule, we look forward to continuing to offer volunteer opportunities and updates on this important work.

We hope this renovated undercrossing at the Satsop River will help serve as a model to inspire additional wildlife crossings under or over Highway 12 and I-5 in southwest Washington.

I-5 Wildlife Activity and Veterans collaboration

This photograph of a bobcat, captured by a VETC trail camera, is traveling on a mapped wildlife corridor along I-5. Photo: Veteran’s Ecological Trades Collective.

A small team of dedicated volunteers have been assisting us as we catalog wildlife movement on a 120 arce parcel that sits along I-5 near Grand Mound. The Veterans’ Ecological Trades Collective (VETC) is restoring this farm for the purpose of training veterans in sustainable agriculture, forestry, and conservation. Using landscape integrity maps recently published by the Conservation Biology Institute, we identified a corridor that intersects with this property and crosses I-5 in Thurston County, part of what we refer to as the northern linkage(s) (linkage #1 in this map), making this an important parcel for habitat connectivity with a willing landowner.

This image shows habitat linkages in southwest Washington
Map of our Cascades to Olympics program. Click for a larger version!

To capture animal movement to better understand wildlife use of this corridor and support a possible future I-5 underpass or overpass , Conservation Northwest’s Community Wildlife Monitoring Program partnered with our Cascades to Olympics Program to setup up a camera trap study area on the VETC farm.

The day-to-day work and management of this site is run by volunteers and interns. Leading this crew we have an amazing intern/lead project volunteer Garrett Brummel. Garrett has been with us over a year now as an invaluable member of this project (see his recent blog here). Conservation Northwest also has brought on two veteran interns, Cory Mounts and Jose Mendoza, to staff the project, while learning about the type of work we are doing in the region. Their talent, experience, work ethic and personalities have been a great asset for our organization.

Through this work we have photographed cougar, bobcat, elk, deer, and much more, suggesting the mapped wildlife corridor does exist and this area is a vital part of it.

Chehalis Basin

Another essential element to the work that has been accomplished over the last year relates to the Chehalis Basin Strategy, and a contentious proposal to build a flood-retention dam in the headwaters of the Chehalis River, one of Washington’s last best wild salmon and steelhead watersheds as well as critical habitat for a wide range of birds and wildlife.

The proposed Chehalis Dam site in southwest Washington. Photo: Shane Anderson, Pacific Rivers

We have taken a leadership role and helped to facilitate the Chehalis River Alliance, a large collaboration of non-profits, Tribes, businesses, and residents that is seeking sustainable non-dam alternatives to address the flooding throughout the basin. Importantly Conservation Northwest offers a perspective on wildlife, habitat connectivity and forest health that is often lacking in these types of partnerships.

Through this work the Chehalis River Alliance has been a voice for people who don’t think a dam is a promising idea, and for the flora and fauna that call this region home.

Numerous successes were achieved through the Alliance’s work, but the most important was the campaign to have a non-dam alternative developed, and just last month that program was initiated. Over $3 million of the Chehalis Basin Board’s state budget were allocated to develop the new LAND (local actions non-dam alternative) which seeks sustainable non-dam alternatives to flood damage in area. This is a win for the Alliance, wildlife, native flora, local communities and for the state. Given the cost, uncertainties, impacts to Tribal rights, salmon, and wildlife habitat connectivity of the proposed dam, every other possible solution should be seriously evaluated.

Wildlife Mapping

Conservation Northwest has had a long-term and intimate relationship with the science used in Washington state to identify core habitats, wildlife corridors, avian linkage patches, and barriers to inform our team on where to best focus our energy to advocate for, and implement, crossing structures and/or corridor protections.

The longest of those relationships is with the Washington Habitat Connectivity Working Group (WWHCWG). The WWHCWG has been developing mapping models for species in this state since 2010 and over the last year, mapped the coastal and SW region of Washington state. Our Cascades to Olympics Coordinator Brian Stewart has been working with the science team as both a habitat connectivity biologist and a local resident offering on-the-ground perspectives and contributing to the development of connectivity maps for five-focal species: cougar, beaver, mountain beaver, western gray squirrel, and fisher.

In addition, landscape integrity was mapped and overlaid with the five species connectivity maps to create composite maps, highlighting areas where the most species receive the most benefit from a given linkage or core. This project will be released at the end of 2021, however some of the data can be found on the Cascades to Coast Landscape Collaborative‘s resource page, and the landscape integrity data can be found on Databasin. These maps will inform Conservation Northwest’s overall strategy in the region in the coming years and will be a key to the implementation of projects and informing policy.

Policy Wins

Old growth forests, like the Quinault Rainforest in Olympic National Park, are important for carbon sequestration. Photo: Keiko Betcher

We also had some good news on the policy front. The biggest win was the passage of the Climate Commitment Act in the Washington State Legislature, thanks to the efforts of Governor Inslee, Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, Senator Reuven Carlyle, and many of our partner NGOs.

Not only will this bill reduce Washington’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, but it will generate funds for deployment of Natural Climate Solutions to mitigate emissions through biological sequestration and help ecosystems adapt to climate changes. More than $660 million will be generated between 2024 and 2040 to increase sequestration in forests and farmland, protect and restore natural floodplains, and avoid conversion of critical habitat.

Conservation Northwest’s Policy Director Paula Swedeen worked for many years to ensure that Natural Climate Solutions, especially forests given their strong role in removing CO2 from the atmosphere, were included in carbon pricing legislation as part of our collective investment in combating climate change.

The Cascade to Olympics landscape has the most productive forest soils in the state. Restoring forests for carbon sequestration on state and private lands can do triple duty when placed in core habitat and connectivity corridor areas: climate mitigation, habitat connectivity so wildlife can adapt to changing conditions, and better water flow for salmon and people. We will be working with local partners, especially Tribes, on opportunities to use this natural climate solution funding to conserve and restore habitat connectivity over the next several years.

Northern Spotted Owl family (USFWS)
Northern spotted owl was first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

We also got funding in this year’s state budget for the state Department of Natural Resources to complete a statewide spotted owl safe harbor agreement, allowing landowners to grow older forests that owls might use without fear of completely losing their ability to harvest should owls take up residence. Our Policy Director has been working for several years with other stakeholders to complete this agreement.

While progress had stalled at DNR, this funding should allow DNR to finish the agreement in the next year. This is a complementary regulatory incentive which will hopefully help more private landowners shift their management to older forests that owls (and lots of other species) need.

Finally, on the federal front, this year’s Surface Transportation bill includes a whopping $350 million for wildlife corridors and crossing structures nationwide. We are hopeful this will pass this year as part of the bipartisan infrastructure package. We plan to work with our national partners and Washington’s Congressional delegation to direct some of that funding to wildlife crossing structures on I-5. This funding is considered a pilot project, so hopefully more will be forthcoming in future transportation funding bills.

High-Level Program Forecast

In the coming year, we will use the new connectivity maps and the Coast to Cascades Landscape Collaborative’s mapping tool to develop a campaign blueprint to guide our efforts to protect lands most at risk of development near key wildlife crossing points in southwest Washington.

We will also continue our restoration efforts under the Satsop River bridge, and pursue funding for fencing to turn the area into a fully-functioning wildlife underpass. We also hope to start similar restoration efforts under the Newaukum River bridge on I-5.

We will continue to engage with the Chehalis Basin Board and the Alliance to develop the Local Action Non-Dam alternative, and get good projects on the ground through the Aquatic Species Restoration Program that accomplish both terrestrial and aquatic habitat connectivity.

The Chehalis River near Pe Ell. Photo: WA Department of Ecology

We will continue to work in the Coast to Cascades Landscape Collaborative to cooperatively build a protection and restoration vision and plan for our whole Cascade to Olympics program area, pursue funding for wildlife overpasses and underpasses, influence the program development process for the Climate Commitment Act Natural Climate Solutions investments, and work with DNR and other stakeholders to finish the spotted owl safe harbor agreement.

We have been blessed with good fortune as this program continues to organically grow and have tangible on-the-ground impacts. The future is bright as we look to advocate for, and implement, crossing structures, restoration projects, policy, corridor protection and outreach. The need is great and the hour is late, but this program has positioned itself within an advantageous framework and has been aligned with the right partners and collaborators to be an effective resource for landowners, agencies, and Tribes.

We will continue to support connectivity and conservation efforts in the region, and look forward to another year of overcoming challenges, new opportunities, and unexpected joys.

Of all the achievements Conservation Northwest has had through our Cascades to Olympics program, none of them compare to helping  facilitate the awesome work of our dedicated interns and volunteers.

As a thank you and token of our appreciation we wanted to list some of the volunteers we have had this year, taking note of those individuals who have dedicated numerous days and countless hours to the furthering of connectivity and wildlife in the region.

Thank you all, without you, there is no program, we are humbled and honored to be able to work alongside all of you:

Garrett, Megan, JC, Liz, John, Valerie, Tobin, Orin, Debra, Jan, Dean, Karen, Darcie, Ernie, Charley, Catherine, Gary, Clint, Dan, Linda, Izzy, Candace, Jose and Cory


The Cascades to Olympics program works to connect habitat in the Cascade Mountains to the Olympic Peninsula for many species, like the Roosevelt elk. Photo: Eric Foltz