Conservation Challenges in Thurston County

Black Hills Audubon faces several conservation challenges in Thurston County this fall, for which member participation is invited.

Mineral Lands Policy

Thurston County is considering radical changes in the code of the Mineral Lands chapter of the Comprehensive Plan.  BHAS seeks your help in sending emails to the Planning Commissioners and/or County Commissioners.  By coordinating with other environmental organizations, we hope to generate many more than the 120 emails (to the Planning Commission) that we elicited last March.

This fall, the Planning Commission (PC) will have two mandatory public hearings on new Comprehensive Plan language and code changes: one on Mineral Lands Policy, likely in October, and another, very critical hearing, on code changes in November.  Public comments on code will be crucial, because protective critical areas code, implemented in 2010 after years of exhaustive research, could be seriously weakened.  Although the Board of County Commissioners will have the final vote in 2019, it is important to focus now on comments to the PC.  We plan to alert BHAS members of our recommended comments.

On a positive note, the County hydrogeologist has produced a comprehensive memo in which he summarizes the problems that sand and gravel mines can create on surface waters and the County’s aquifer.  He recommends that mining companies produce reports that address some of these water concerns as part of their permit process.  BHAS supports this effort.

Lake Lawrence Cell Tower

In 2015, Verizon proposed a cell tower to be located immediately adjacent to the Smith Area wetland that is intended as mitigation for the McAllister water rights.  Following appeal by the Deschutes Neighborhood Group (DNG), the Hearing Examiner remanded the project for a more thorough bird study.

In December 2016, BHAS’s Deb Nickerson and Anne Mills trained DNG members concerning local birds, and Sally Nole, Bob Wadsworth, and Sue Danver assisted with the survey in the winter of 2017.  After review of surveys by Verizon’s consultant and by DNG, the County again approved the tower.  And again, the DNG appealed.  At a recent hearing BHAS members Sally Nole and Bob Wadsworth testified about their efforts and their analyses of the two bird survey reports.

The Mitigation Area is publicly owned by Yelm, Olympia, and Tumwater and worthy of refuge status, as suggested by Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.  Dikes were removed this summer and birds moved in immediately.  County code requires that a cell tower must be 1,000’ from a refuge so the tower project would have to be denied.  The County has taken the position that it is not an official wetland.  The decision date is October 5.

Proposed Tumwater 1,000,000 Square Foot Warehouse

A proposed million square foot warehouse across from the truck stop of I-5 and 93rd Avenue in Tumwater has met the city’s application requirements.  A major concern is its location in the Salmon Creek Basin, an area prone to serious floods.  With heavy rains, this basin could experience groundwater flooding, such as occurred in 1999.

Because this area is part of the Black River watershed, pollution carried by floodwaters from the Salmon Creek Basin could affect not only residences, but also the thousands of conservation acres along the Black River, including the Black River National Wildlife Refuge and Glacier Heritage Park.  We are seeking hydrological review of the developer’s water report and Tumwater’s response to that report.  Early participation in the process is the best time to achieve success.

Lake Lawrence Cell Tower Hearing (Remand) Set For Sept. 11

Long-billed Dowitchers at Smith Ranch

The remand hearing on the Lake Lawrence cell tower construction will be held Sep. 11, 10 am, at the Thurston County Courthouse.  BHAS opposes locating the proposed tower so close to several water features where waterfowl concentrate.  The water features include a Priority 2 pond, the Deschutes River, the Smith Ranch wetlands, and the nearby Lake Lawrence, all southwest of Yelm.  The presence of BHAS members and other citizens is important to demonstrate opposition to this project.

Public testimony on the land use portion of the application, with a three minute limit for each speaker, will occur at 1 pm.  I believe the importance of bird watching to your life (and others) may be addressed at this time. You can discuss how the cell tower would diminish your experience visually and by reducing (most likely) the population of birds in and around the Smith Ranch Mitigation Area and/or flyway.   Such public testimony with many personal stories would be valuable addition to the hearing.

Background:  In March 2016, BHAS supported an appeal of a cell phone tower construction next to several waterfowl concentration areas.  The high potential for bird collisions with the tower was/is the concern.  The Thurston County Hearings Examiner remanded the proposal back to county staff for further review. The proponent, Verizon Wireless, then hired a contractor to study and report on bird movements near the tower site.   The Deschutes Neighborhood Group (DNG), the appellant, conducted their own bird survey.   BHAS helped DNG with survey work and volunteer training.  With guidance from a local research ecologist, DNG produced its own citizen science study of birds and their flight patterns around the Smith Ranch Mitigation pasture/wetland and proposed cell tower location.

WA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife reviewed both studies and concluded in January 2018:

“Although the Smith Ranch Mitigation Area is not a formal wildlife refuge, it is a publically owned site purchased for the sole purpose of wildlife and habitat mitigation for the Deschutes River Basin whose restoration is required to allow for joint acquisition of water rights and land by the cities of Olympia, Lacey and Yelm.  As such, Thurston County should view this mitigation site in the same vein as a wildlife and habitat refuge.  The Deschutes/Black Hills study found that almost 3 times the amount of waterfowl was observed flying to and from the direction of the Smith Ranch Mitigation Area than elsewhere in the study area.  The Trileaf study also found that waterfowl/wading species flight paths were almost exclusively concentrated through the open pasture area of the Smith Ranch wetland area.  As such, the proposed cell tower would be within 1,000 ft. of two waterfowl concentration areas (163rd wetlands, Smith Ranch Mitigation Area), one of which serves as a publically owned refuge.”

 Dr. Albert Manville, a former and now retired USFWS national expert on bird cell tower collisions, will be testifying via computer for the DNG.

Smith Ranch restoration

And, it is thrilling to report that this summer (2018), as part of already ongoing mitigation measures, the Smith Ranch pasture dikes were razed to return the area to its original wetlands.  Waterfowl appeared immediately in the newly flooded fields, even with bulldozers operating nearby!  At this writing, mitigation efforts continue.

*By Thurston County regulation, a cell tower may not be within a 1,000’ of a wildlife refuge.

Black Hills Audubon Surveys Birds on Wildlife-Rich Tract Acquired by Capitol Land Trust with Help from BHAS

Black Hills Audubon is now a partner in the acquisition of Blooms Preserve in the Black River watershed, north of Littlerock.  Formerly part of the Holm ranch, this 60-acre conservation land is now owned by Capitol Land Trust (CLT), with help from the Maytown Conservation Fund, managed by BHAS.  This tract of prairie and woodland includes Blooms Ditch — a salmon-bearing channelized stream — and can be managed for conservation of Oregon spotted frogs, a species of concern of the Maytown Conservation Fund, and will provide opportunities for bird surveys and field trips for BHAS.

In fact seven of us from BHAS met with Thom Woodruff, Interim Executive Director of CLT, on a warm and sunny July 12th for our first avian survey of Blooms Preserve, observing an amazing 57 species of birds, including Green Heron, Hutton’s, Cassin’s, and Warbling Vireos, and Western Tanager.  Thanks to all who participated from BHAS, including Whittier Johnson, Bob Wadsworth, Gary Wiles, Paul Hicks, Joe Zabransky, Anne Van Sweringen, and Sam Merrill.  We look forward to observing and enjoying the diversity of this land at other times of year, including during the Christmas bird count and spring migration.

Your Comments Needed about Impact on Birds by the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project in Lewis and Thurston Counties

RES-Americas proposes to install 38 wind-energy turbines on ridge tops in northern Lewis County, with part of the infrastructure in Thurston County.  Like National Audubon Society, the Black Hills Audubon Society supports wind-energy projects as long as the direct damage to birds from the turbines is appropriately minimized and mitigated.

The public is invited to comment on the scope of Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) by both Lewis County and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Your input is important to help these agencies better evaluate the potential impact of this wind-energy project on the environment, especially protected Marbled Murrelets, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, and other species of concern.   Often, officials or staff members really want our comments because public input empowers them to address wildlife conservation issues.  You do not need to live in either Lewis or Thurston Ct. to submit Comments.

The deadlines for Comments are very soon:

For the Lewis County EIS: Send Comments by Thursday, May 31 (5 p.m.), via email to or by postal mail to Lee Napier, Director, Lewis County Community Development Dept., 2025 NE Kresky Ave., Chehalis, WA 98532.

For the USFWS EIS: Send Comments By Monday, June 4 to USFWS via email to (include “Skookumchuck Wind” in the subject line) or by postal mail to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, c/o Mark Ostwald, 510 Desmond Dr. SE, Suite 102, Lacey, WA 98503.

The following are points you could make:

  • The EIS should include a more accurate estimate of the level of “take,” i.e. the number of direct kills of Marbled Murrelets, Bald Eagles, and Golden Eagles, Bats, and migratory avian species. Especially important for the USFWS EIS.
  • RES’s radar study of Marbled Murrelets (ABR 2015) assumes an artificially high avoidance rate based on surrogate species whose flight patterns and behaviors are extremely dissimilar to the murrelets—a dissimilarity that may lead to gross underestimation of the murrelet mortality rate.
  • The EIS should analyze the effect on Marbled Murrelets of curtailing wind turbine operation during the species’ peak commute times between their marine foraging areas and nest sites (from one hour before sunrise to two hours after official sunrise and from one hour before official sunset to one hour after official sunset) during the breeding season (April 1 through September 23).
  • The five turbines to be sited closest to known nest sites can be relocated or eliminated to reduce impact on Marbled Murrelets.
  • The EIS should examine why the level of take proposed by RES-Americas is so high—4 to 5 Bald Eagles and 1 Golden Eagle per year for the 30-55 years of operation. RES-Americas has a technology to detect approaching eagles and stop the turbines, but does not plan to implement this technology during the first two years of operation or until they approach the “take” limit that will be set USFWS.
  • The EIS should include analysis of the impacts of the turbines and related infrastructure on the following avian and bat species:
  1. Marbled Murrelets (state endangered, federally threatened)
  2. Bald Eagles (federal species of concern)
  3. Golden Eagles (state species of concern) 
  4. Peregrine Falcon (federal species of concern, state sensitive species)
  5. Northern Goshawk (state candidate species)
  6. Olive-sided Flycatcher (federal species of concern)
  7. Pileated Woodpecker (state candidate species)
  8. Vaux’s Swift (state candidate species)
  9. Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat (state candidate species)
  10. Long-eared Myotis (federal species of concern)
  11. Long-legged Myotis (federal species of concern)

More background and Talking Points on the effects on birds of the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project

More information on this project from Lewis County Community Development

More information on this project from USFWS