Opponents continue speaking against wetlands project
By MITCH LIES
PORTLAND -- The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has approved a land exchange in Coquille Valley, setting the stage for a wetland-conversion project that opponents say will harm adjoining grazing land.
"We feel we will be adversely impacted," said Charlie Waterman, who owns land on two sides of the proposed wetland. "What is there today is very important to our area."
During a Dec. 6 hearing in Portland, Waterman and other area landowners testified in opposition to the project, which has been in the works since 2008. The land swap of 607 acres of Eel Lake timberland for 510 acres of bottom land near the Coquille River is the first step in the plan.
Commissioners unanimously approved the straight-across swap.
Several people who testified said a recent election's outcome indicated area residents oppose the project and that the wildlife commissioners should heed public sentiment.
In a nonbinding vote in the November general election, 70 percent of area residents voted to oppose a plan to expand nearby Bandon Marsh.
"If you go ahead with this, I believe you will be public enemy No. 1," said Arlys Fones, who owns land in the area.
"I believe (the voters) have spoken," she said.
Others said the bottom land, which is grazed each summer, provides better habitat for fish and wildlife than if it were converted to a wetland. Still others said fish can't survive the high summer temperatures in the proposed wetland, regardless of whether the land is converted, and won't lead to increased fish runs, which supporters have touted as a project benefit.
"No research has been conducted showing the project will be successful," said Coos County Commissioner Bob Main. "In my opinion, farmland supports more waterfowl and fish than wetlands.
"This project won't create any more ducks or any more fish," Main said.
Others, however, said the project will provide several environmental benefits without negatively impacting grazing.
Larry Cooper, southwest regional manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said grazing can continue on the proposed wetlands except during early-plant growth. And, he said, the project will have no effects on neighboring landowners.
Also, he said, by restoring native channels and providing other habitat improvements, the project is expected to generate an additional 4,000 returning adult coho salmon each year.
In addition, Cooper said, the project could help drainage districts qualify for grant funds to replace aging tide gates.
"If they are not replaced, it could have catastrophic failure," Cooper said. "And if that occurs, the whole place goes under tidal influence twice a day, and we don't want that to happen."
"The interest of the fish, the wildlife and the agriculture, are not mutually exclusive," said Coos County Commissioner Fred Messerle, a project supporter and drainage district manager who owns land in the area.
"No landowner will be any worse off than they are today," he said.
Following the hearing, Sharon Waterman, an outspoken opponent of the project, said she remains concerned that her grazing allotments will be negatively impacted.
"I hope there will be written, legal agreements that will protect all the landowners in the drainage district from the plan that has been proposed," Waterman said.
But, Waterman said, she was optimistic adjacent landowners will be able to protect their interests.
"I feel we have started a relationship (with the state) and that we can work together," Waterman said.