Going wild: some island natural areas in transition

The view from a bluff at Neill Point Natural Area (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

The view from a bluff at Neill Point Natural Area (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

Neill Point Natural Area, one of the southernmost locations on Vashon Island, looks hardly touched by human life. Much of the native vegetation has filled back in and returned to the areas where it had been lost.

“We obviously didn’t plant that cedar there, but we have a lot of trees in here, a lot of alders,” said Greg Rabourn, responsible for safeguarding habitat on Vashon and Maury Islands as the watershed steward for King County. “We actually might want to thin out some of these alders and let some of the conifers grow, give them more light.”

Rabourn invited a Beachcomber reporter along to scope out some of the conservation work that the county has been doing on Vashon-Maury in recent years, beginning with Neill Point, a restoration project in its later stages that now requires little but time and care. He said that the investment of money and effort to replant greenery in the footprint of homes that once stood at the site was significant. Ever since the county bought land parcels from property owners living at Neill Point — some recent acquisitions, some dating as far back as 2008 — crews have had to double-down on efforts to keep out invasives. Ivy, a non-native species, climbs high up the trunks of some trees in the park and can cause enormous damage to them, said Rabourn, smothering their branches and inducing a slow death or even toppling them.

But there is reason to be optimistic: The county recently bought two additional parcels nearby, he said, and while more restoration will be needed, progress is on track.

“These are all local sellers that have said, ‘Hey, we’re ready to go.’ We’ve talked to them frequently, and we know that they’re interested, and when they’re ready to sell, they hopefully contact us,” he said. “The advantages are, we pay for the appraisal — there’s no cost to the property owner — and they get fair market value. We’re bound by very strict ethics … so it’s not like we’re going to take advantage of them.”

Toward the front of the preserve, Rabourn said that most of those parcels were once owned by members of the same family. “They had an RV parked right here in the summer,” he said, stopping the car to survey the nearby bluff. “It’s a pretty spectacular spot.”

High up on the bluff overlooking Puget Sound, with the Tacoma shoreline in the distance and Mount Rainier beyond, there are few more beautiful places to spend an afternoon. Unlike some of the natural areas the county owns on Vashon-Maury, the road to Neill Point is public, meaning all are welcome to drive up for a picnic. There is limited parking available, and all dogs must be on a leash.

According to Rabourn, the bluff itself is special — not just because of the view from the top. It feeds material such as sand and gravel to the coastline below, washing offshore and back again with the tides while replenishing the beach, creating what is known as a drift cell. All in all, this shoreline functions today as it always has — there was never a bulkhead or retaining wall installed by the original property owners. But elsewhere, before construction of new homes was regulated, houses were built on waterfronts and in places where they didn’t belong — sometimes even without much land. Additional square footage was carved out of hillsides, wreaking havoc on the local ecology.

“It used to be really easy to build along the shoreline,” said Rabourn. “[Today] waterfront property owners tend to be older and may be retiring, or they may be ready to move away from the high maintenance needs of waterfront property. Maybe their kids aren’t ready to take that on, that added expense, because a new bulkhead is tremendously expensive.”

With Rabourn and the Vashon Basin Stewardship Program, King County recently purchased 425 feet of waterfront owned by longtime islanders Todd and Donna Larson, who lived in a home near Piner Point Natural Area on Maury Island. The main house was built in 1947 and remodeled throughout the years. It now stands only 15 feet away from the edge of the bluff; the county plans to tear it down and remove the Larson’s bulkhead.

The purchase was completed this year and largely funded by the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, according to Rabourn, aided by several grants that he wrote to help close the sale.

“As far back as 2010, we did a bulkhead removal right adjacent to it,” said Rabourn. “The Larson’s bulkhead — their house might be at risk if they removed it because it’s so close to the bluff.”

The process of removing shoreline bulkheads is expensive and sometimes complicated; Rabourn said that many times crews have to bring in a barge to remove the debris. The rubble is then usually treated as hazardous waste. Witnessing crews in action, the Larsons were impressed by the county’s work near their property.

“We saw what they did there, how they restored it, and it was really sensitive,” said Todd Larson, adding that in recent years the couple became more conscientious about the environment and the pressures of climate change. “This seemed like it was kind of a noble thing to do.”

Donna described their partnership with Rabourn and the county as a gift. She said they were told that their property was unique, in that it is one of only a few locations where the presence of all three major types of forage fish has been documented.

“Around Puget Sound, we don’t have a lot of [spots] like this,” Rabourn said.

The forage fish, only steps away from the Larson’s backyard, are not only critical to the survival of endangered salmon but are also depended on by an abundance of life. Of the places that forage fish can be found together, most are more geographically isolated, but Rabourn said that the Larson property is “definitely a really important area.”

Donna Larson added that she and her husband felt a sense of responsibility for the property, which had begun to pose challenges too difficult for them to contend with.

“It was an ethical decision for us, and time to give it back, because it required a lot from us,” she said.

The large retaining wall holding back the bluff that their house was built on requires a lot of maintenance. She was concerned that an earthquake would spell disaster, and as the armoring ages, replacing it could be cost prohibitive.

“It was a win-win for everybody,” she said. “It was a gift to us.”

Rabourn, too, was focused on the benefits of the sale. “Now that [the county] has bought it, we can remove that shoreline armoring so the bluff can behave in a natural way,” he said.

Someday, Rabourn hopes the county’s work will connect Piner Point Natural Area with nearby Northilla Beach Natural Area, creating protected shoreline along the entire south end of Maury Island. Walking along the craggy beach, the rocks covered in barnacles, he recommended a route for kayaking when the tide is in.

“You can see why they lived here for as long as they did. It’s paradise,” he said.

A handful of properties abut the shoreline there, some privately owned and some purchased by the county, now in various stages of restoration. Rabourn pointed out the differences between them, such as the accumulation of driftwood on shorelines that are not armored.

“When you look at bulkheaded properties, the logs aren’t able to accumulate because they float off during each tide cycle. So that’s one of the things that you look for when you remove armoring,” he said. Nearby, a bird eagerly fluttered around a driftwood log. “When you have driftwood, you have support for life.”

Also important to natural shoreline habitats, said Rabourn, is overhanging vegetation, which some property owners cut for reasons, such as maximizing views or for access to the water. Terrestrial insects, falling from the vegetation to the water below, sustain the forage fish.

“Plus, the shade helps keep the forage fish eggs from drying out,” he said.

On the walk back, observing the work left to be done, Rabourn stopped. Ahead of him, the shoreline was armored in some places, but not everywhere. “I think this spot pretty much sums it up,” he said. Gradual revitalization by the county along that stretch of beach had given parts of it a wilder look and made his job “a dream.”

“It’s a transition in a nutshell,” he said, gesturing between the before and after. “We’re trying to get from that to this.”

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