Helicopter assists Tulalip Tribes’ wetland restoration

Near the town of Gold Bar, several creeks drain from quiet surroundings into the Wallace River, which meets the Skykomish River about 4 miles downstream.

In October, the Tulalip Tribes introduced to the area an environmental restoration concept not tried anywhere else.

“As far as we know, this is a completely new idea,” said Todd Gray, environmental protection ecologist with the tribes’ Natural Resources Department. He and wetland biologist Michelle Bahnick led the project.

The experimental restoration involved moving 90 untreated wood shipping pallets topped with soil, conifers and flowering shrubs from an open field to a soggy wetland—by helicopter. Deep channels and beaver activity hidden beneath the vegetation make the wetland unsafe to wade into.

“One of the benefits that we hope this technique provides is to establish or reestablish native plants in an area too difficult or dangerous to get to by vehicle, or too risky to disturb,” Gray said.

Tulalip Tribes Environmental Protection Ecologist Todd Gray, left, and Washington Conservation Corps crew member Derek Bryant attach the ropes around a pre-planted pallet to a hook strung from a helicopter in October.

The pallets were pre-planted at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wallace Creek Hatchery, then airlifted one by one to their destination—a wetland infested with reed canary grass. Reed canary grass is an invasive plant that clogs waterways, leaving salmon habitat cramped, exposed to warmer water and lacking in prey.

“It chokes out channels that fish could otherwise use,” Gray said.

The pallets were placed in three 50-foot by 60-foot plots, with the idea that the Sitka spruce, western red cedar and shrubs will take root and provide shade, bugs and complex habitat that improve conditions for salmon.

“If you set essentially this island on top of the reed canary grass, you’re giving everything on it a leg up,” Gray said.

The tribes will compare percent cover of reed canary grass, shrubs, and trees over time to determine if the pre-planted pallet method is successful in controlling the invasive weed. To analyze the success of the project, the tribes installed 1,050 willow stakes—a known restoration method—across three comparison plots and established three control plots within the same wetland.

The Tulalip Tribes purchased the wetland property to restore habitat along Bear Creek, a tributary to the Wallace River. Coho salmon are known to use the area.

The pallet project is funded by a wetland program development grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that encourages innovative restoration demonstration projects.

Above: A helicopter ferries a pre-planted pallet to a wetland restoration site in October. Below (left to right): A pallet is airlifted from the state hatchery, Todd Gray and Washington Conservation Corps members watch a pallet during takeoff, and a pallet is lowered to its new resting place. Photos and story: Kimberly Cauvel. 

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