| by Mark C. Anderson

News Stories

Young salmon. (Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife )

Young Chinook salmon wriggle through salt-marsh shallows. A rare short-eared owl glides across pale blue skies. Sunlight dances on the water’s surface at high tide.

The wild wetlands of the Stillaguamish River Basin and Snohomish County River Deltas in Washington state are beautiful.

Their intrinsic value is clear, but what is the return on investment for rewilding them?

One hundred years ago, this thriving tidal marsh was a man-made piece of land called Leque Island. It was created by settlers in the late 1800s who diked and drained the area so it could be used for farming.

The mission to rewild the area was launched after the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) gradually purchased the lots that comprised Leque. 

In 2013, with the support of local tribes, community leaders, scientists, hunters, anglers and Ducks Unlimited, WDFW embarked on removing the dikes and restoring hundreds of acres of habitat for salmon and other native species. That project was completed in 2019.

A subsequent economic valuation study by Middlebury Institute’s Center for the Blue Economy gave WDFW and other decision makers the data to show how valuable healthy wetlands are for species habitat and human safety.

Skagit Wildlife Area
Leque Island Unit of Skagit Wildlife Area after habitat restoration. (Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife )

Salmon Are the Heart of the Ecological System

It turns out salmon proves more than a tasty snack. 

Salmon are so crucial in the health of a thriving coastal ecosystem—providing vital protein for species like bears, humans, and Southern Resident killer whales and cycling nutrients through ocean and stream alike—they earn the title of “keystone species” from wildlife experts. 

A short film produced by the WDFW details the transformation of Leque Island, and the return of juvenile Chinook salmon after years of absence. Loren Brokaw of WDFW, who grew up nearby and kayaks its narrow straits with his family, provides commentary.

“If we’re serious about living in a place that has healthy salmon runs, [and] places to go and experience healthy ecosystems, we have to restore landscapes at a scale that really means something,” he says. 

While WDFW biologists and partners track the return of 15 different species of fish, along with extensive bird and plant life, the Institute’s Center for the Blue Economy looked at the revitalization through an economic angle. 

That NOAA-funded work, led in large part by CBE director of research Charles Colgan, measured other benefits emerging from the restoration

Coastal protection and life-saving flood control ranked highly, as did human recreation and endangered salmon recovery.

“The issues that Puget Sound salmon face are complicated,” Colgan says. “But the whole population depends, in some degree, on the salmon in [Snohomish] river, so to open this as salmon habitat was a big deal.”

He goes on to add that a major ecological breakthrough for Chinook was but one measurable positive impact among many.

“Economic well-being means different things to different people,” the study found. “For some, [it] means having a good job. For others [it] means happiness that sometimes comes at a financial cost (e.g., the cost of living near the beach). For politicians and public officials, [it] means economic activity, sustainable taxes, and funding for public projects. The quality of coastal and estuary areas and access to these areas influence all of these measures of economic well-being.”

The study updates our understanding of the contributions of estuary regions to the human economy, and the real value provided by both reduction in flood damage and storing carbon dioxide.

Per the report, estuary regions (including several others beyond Snohomish) account for $8.8 trillion in gross domestic product (more than double all of Germany) and 59.4 million jobs (or roughly 40 times that of the state of Kansas).

It also revealed the Snohomish Estuary provides real-world value of 1) up to $1.4 million for “coastal blue carbon” (or the carbon captured by living coastal and marine organisms and stored in coastal ecosystems); and 2) as much as $3.4 million for “natural infrastructure” (aka defense against disaster for coastal communities).

Sandy Allen
Sandy Allen, tribal elder, Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, which worked with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on the project. (Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife )

Lessons for Other Communities

The study’s detailed information, in turn, gives government and other decision makers real data to judge the importance of healthy estuaries, deltas, bays, coastlines, and lakes.

Former Washington State Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program manager Jay Krienitz helped find funding for the project and the ensuing report.

“Salt marshes and estuaries are some of the most productive and important ecosystems on the planet, and also some of the most threatened,” he says. “Really having an understanding on a multi-benefit level—including land use, recreation, flood resilience, and other natural solutions to environmental hazards like flood and sea level rise—make a special estuary story like [Stillaguamish’s] that much more meaningful.”

An additional benefit emerged along the course of the study: Colgan and company trained Fish and Wildlife officials on how to complete economic-benefit studies so they could conduct them on their own. 

To tweak a time-honored parable: Rather than give an organization an economic-estuary study once, teach them how to complete such a study so they can do so in perpetuity—as Center for the Blue Economy Director Jason Scorse emphasizes.  

“The really nice thing about that project is that we were really building capacity for locals there to monitor and value that project,” he says, “so they can do it themselves over the long term.”

Paddling Together

Originating on the western slopes of the Cascades near the Mountain Loop Highway and flowing into Port Susan and Puget Sound near the City of Stanwood, the Stillaguamish River is small compared to many other Washington rivers. Yet due to seriously endangered runs of wild Chinook, impacts on Stillaguamish salmon play a major role in fisheries management throughout much of Western Washington and beyond. Restoring habitat to recover salmon and steelhead in “the Stilly” is a top priority for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, Snohomish County, and other partners. This includes collaboration to restore the intertidal estuary at sites such as WDFW’s Leque Island Wildlife Area Unit and the Tribe’s zis z ba property. And projects to reconnect historic river channels such as Trafton Floodplain Restoration on tribal and county lands near Arlington. 

For More Information

Center for the Blue Economy