USFWS Coastal Program

Addition by Subtraction: Lummi Island Project Revives Habitat of the Past for Future Generations

By: Amanda Smith, USFWS Columbia Pacific NW Region, External Affairs

Photo: A short ferry crossing reveals a vibrant artist community, legendary dining, and stunning vistas of the Salish Sea. Credit: Edmund Lowe Photography

Many people have no idea that a mere twenty minutes from Bellingham, Washington lies an island sanctuary of natural beauty and fascinating history. Due to its accessible location between mainland Washington and the San Juan Islands, Lummi Island has often been called one of the best kept secrets in the West. In fact, I myself, a Washington state resident, had never heard of Lummi Island until I learned of this project.

Lummi Island is tucked away at the southwest corner of Whatcom County, Washington, between the mainland part of the county and offshore San Juan County. With a population of less than one thousand in about nine square miles, the Island is a cozy blend of private land and public space — much of which is dedicated to the protection of natural resources. One of those places is the Aiston Preserve, a property that, thanks to the power of partnership and the Service’s Coastal Program, is undergoing major transformation.

Aiston Preserve, named for a homesteading family that owned the property in the 1940’s, includes about 105 acres of saltwater shoreline, near-shore, and forested habitat that are critical to native plants and wildlife. Twenty of these acres have been disturbed by past mining activities and it is these areas that Lummi Island Heritage Trust, a private non-profit, along with its many partners, hope to restore.

“Lummi Island Heritage Trust purchased the property in 2015 as part of its mission to create a legacy of abundant open space, native habitat, and natural resources on Lummi Island,” says Elizabeth Kilanowski, board member for the Lummi Island Heritage Trust. “This place is a true treasure and our goal is to, with the help of our many partners, restore it and make it shine.”

Restoring Aiston Preserve is a bit like turning back the clock and it requires contributions from conservation partners on every level. From individual citizens to city, state, and federal agencies, many have come together for this project, including: The Northwest Straits Foundation, The Washington State Department of Natural Resources Aquatics and Mining Divisions, Whatcom County Parks Department, Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee, and Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Funding partners include the Washington State Department of Ecology, The Whatcom County Conservation Futures Fund, The Rose Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and numerous private donors.

To begin the restoration project, the core team comprised of Lummi Island Heritage Trust and the Northwest Straits Foundation had to understand what this part of the Island once was for wildlife, what it has the potential to become again, and how to get there. “There are decades of past mining and construction to contend with,” says Teal Waterstrat, a USFWS biologist co-leading the project. “To bring back the habitat that was once here, we’ve got to start with taking some things out — call it addition by subtraction.”

Less is more when it comes to manmade structures and quality wildlife habitat. The first on-the-ground step of restoration was the removal of overwater structures including a pier, a loading ramp, and pilings. “These structures were problematic for many reasons but especially because the creosote pilings leach contaminants into the nearshore habitats,” says Waterstrat. “Removing the shoreline structures not only restores 500 feet of shoreline and 20 acres of mining-damaged uplands, but also accomplishes a critical step that the remainder of the project is dependent upon.”

Photos: The Aiston Preserve on Lummi Island contains 105 acres of deep mossy forests (left) and 4,000 feet of shoreline, with pocket beaches, eelgrass beds and Smugglers Cove (right). In recent years, a portion of the property was used as a rock quarry. Credit: Edmund Lowe Photography

Now that the removal is complete, the team can begin the further restoration of the Aiston Preserve — something that promises to yield impressive conservation gains. Among the many expected results of restoration are: the expansion of eelgrass and kelp bed habitats for foraging bull trout, salmonids, juvenile rockfish, and marine birds such as Marbled murrelets, rhinoceros auklet, pigeon guillemot, and scoters; newly restored rocky shore, pocket beach, vegetated tideland and nearshore habitats for shorebirds and waterfowl; increased availability of spawning habitat for surf smelt and sand lance to benefit the birds, animals and fish that prey on them; and the creation of habitat for a wide variety of priority and listed species like Peregrine falcon and Pacific brant.

Video: Structure and piling removal took place between September 21 and 24 by Quigg Bros, Inc. A few pilings were left to remove at a later date due to a full barge. Credit: Edmond Lowe Photography

While the time-lapse video above may make things appear seamless, a restoration project of this scope and size requires what Waterstrat describes as a “scientific, coordinated approach,” that requires monitoring at each phase. Kilanowski echoes his call for an informed approach to the restoration of Aiston Preserve, adding “there are certainly challenges when undertaking a project of this magnitude but I believe that partnership can overcome obstacles and yield tremendous gains for the wildlife and the land.”

USFWS Pacific NW Region

Conservation in the Columbia Pacific Northwest