Removing a bulkhead at Piner Point may help fish

Piner Point, the southern-most tip of Maury Island, is a quiet stretch of shoreline — a long ribbon of cobbled beach backed by steep banks and a tangled forest of firs and madrones.

It’s also the site of King County’s newest preserve on Vashon — Piner Point Natural Area — and a place of keen ecological interest. The shoreline, largely undeveloped, provides needed habitat for Puget Sound’s smallest fish — sand lance, surf smelt and herring — which in turn support the Sound’s entire food chain.

Now, with funds targeted at the region’s ambitious efforts at salmon recovery, the county hopes to soon begin a significant restoration project at Piner Point. If all goes according to plan, it will remove 225 feet of creosote-treated bulkhead later this summer, the county’s largest bulkhead removal project ever.

The $240,000 project will do much to help restore this significant stretch of shoreline, county officials and conservationists say. Bulkheads halt natural processes that are considered critical to shoreline health; erosion, for instance, helps to rebuild beaches depleted by wave action, and downed trees drop insects into the water, food for a variety of small fish and other marine life.

“It’s really a great opportunity when we can do something like this and let the processes of habitat restoration begin to occur on their own,” said Dennis Clark, stewardship coordinator for the Green-Duwamish Watershed.

Tom Dean, who heads the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, said he first identified this bulkhead-removal project in 2000, when he worked for People For Puget Sound and undertook an inventory of Vashon’s shoreline ecology.

Such projects are hard to find, he said, because there’s little public ownership along shorelines. What’s more, neighboring properties can be affected by bulkhead removals, making such projects tricky to undertake in areas where there’s a string of waterfront homes.

“There’s such a scarcity of these projects,” Dean said. “So every little bit you can get your hands on really becomes important.”

The county owns seven acres at Piner Point, a natural area it pieced together — with the help of the land trust — over the course a few years. It purchased the one-acre site with the bulkhead from a Vashon family in 2008 and last year demolished the small cabin that sat on the parcel.

There are a few houses just to the north of the natural area, however, and the county plans to build a wing wall — a tie-back that connects the neighbor’s bulkhead to the bank — to protect the adjacent property.

Still, a few neighbors say they’re concerned about the project and will be keeping a close eye on the situation.

Pam Jewson, whose water-

front home is perched on a bank a couple hundred feet from the project, said she supports the county’s efforts at shoreline restoration, noting that such a project can sustain a food chain that ends with the region’s imperiled killer whales.

“It’s ultimately all about the orcas,” she said.

At the same time, she added, that wing wall is critical.

“I support it as long as they take measures to protect neighboring properties — people’s significant investments,” she said.

Patty Van Den Broek, who has a cabin in Northilla, a string of waterfront homes on the other side of Piner Point several hundred yards from the bulkhead, questioned the county’s decision to spend money on the project at a time when public funds are scarce. She also said she feels the public was not adequately informed about the project, which is currently going through a state-mandated environmental review and comment period.

Initially, a public notice was put only in the Seattle Times. After Van Den Broek complained, the county acknowledged it had made a mistake, placed a notice in The Beachcomber and extended the public comment period by two weeks — or until June 29.

“The bulkhead’s been there for so many years, and it’s above the high-tide mark,” Van Den Broek said. “With the county having so little money, I question the priority.”

Skip Norton, another Northilla cabin-owner who lives in Seattle and has been visiting the Vashon site for 75 years, agreed. “It just seems like such an utter waste,” he said.

But Greg Rabourn, the Vashon basin steward for the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks, said that the funds for the project come from a designated line item — money that can’t be used for schools or roads, for instance. As for the bulkhead’s location, he said, shoreline-armoring even high on a beach has an impact.

“Although the waves only make it up there during major storm events, that’s when you really need it,” he said. “If there’s no bulkhead, driftwood can get high up on the bank and create habitat.”

The timing for this bulkhead removal is critical, Dean with the land trust added. A major restoration project recently took place at the mouth of the Nisqually River south of Tacoma — a project fish biologists believe will result in several more juvenile chinook entering the Sound at a critical time in their life cycle, he said. Restoration in the Skagit Delta, north of Seattle, has also helped bolster the population of chinook, a threatened species.

Vashon, situated in Central Puget Sound between these two large regional deltas, provides a critical sheltering and feeding spot for young fish, he said.

“Central Puget Sound is an important nursery area, and Vashon has the only shoreline that can provide meaningful habitat,” Dean said.

To comment, write to Laird O’Rollins, Department of Natural Resources and Parks, 201 S. Jackson St., Suite 600, Seattle, 98104.

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