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Originally published September 15, 2013 at 8:42 PM | Page modified September 15, 2013 at 8:43 PM

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Battle brewing over Samish wetlands

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife recently proposed a wetland-restoration project to improve wildlife habitat at the popular site and installed a parking lot to make it more accessible.

Skagit Valley Herald

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A fallow agricultural field at the mouth of the Samish River shifted to public ownership when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife purchased it in 2004. Now, the 100-acre plot known as the Welts property is enjoyed as a public-access point for walking, bird-watching, fishing and hunting.

Fish and Wildlife recently proposed a wetland-restoration project to improve wildlife habitat at the popular site and installed a parking lot to make it more accessible. Neighbors responded with a slew of concerns about public use of the area.

At a public-information meeting last month at the Padilla Bay Interpretive Center, Fish and Wildlife representatives intending to discuss the Welts Wetland Restoration Project were instead bombarded with unexpected complaints and questions from neighboring residents criticizing the land’s management.

“This piece of property you have out there is mismanaged,” Tony Breckenridge, who lives across the river from the field, said at the meeting. “The impact on property owners out there is unreasonable.”

Residents near the field complained of trespassing, which they said is encouraged through access to the Welts area, along with other concerns.

One attendee, however, said she appreciates the public access.

Pat Bunting said although she does not live near the Welts property — she lives nearby in Edison — she enjoys visiting the site to walk and birdwatch.

“It’s a pretty important spot for that because it’s just across the street from the mouth of the Samish River. There’s a lot of waterfowl and hawks and eagles,” she said in a later phone interview.

Fish and Wildlife representatives said recreation like Bunting’s fits with department goals.

“Part of our agency objective is to provide recreational opportunity related to wildlife,” Skagit Wildlife Area Manager Belinda Rotton said, also in a follow-up phone interview. “Where we run into problems a lot of the time is in Western Washington where the population is increasing.”

Some Welts-area neighbors argue the space is too small for hunting, which can be dangerous. Without enforcement, hunters come early, leave late and shoot across the river toward homes.

The area is also busy with fishermen and walkers who access the water along the dike, but ignore and even tear down “no trespassing” signs where the dike crosses onto private property, adjacent landowners said.

“We’ve made a lot of calls on trespassers, a lot of calls on reckless shooting, a lot of calls on injured waterfowl that no one even attempted to retrieve,” Breckenridge told the Skagit Valley Herald. “I’m gladly in favor of people recreating, but they have to do it in a responsible manner.”

Dike District 5 manages dike access according to property-owner preferences, which is difficult where a section like the Welts area falls on public property, but the surrounding area is private, district Commissioner Jim Sullivan said.

Some neighbors want Fish and Wildlife to foot the bill for enforcement on site, as well as fencing along the dike and restrooms. Breckenridge suggests a different approach.

“I think they should surplus the property and sell it off,” he said. “It’s a piece of property the state simply cannot manage. They don’t have the manpower to do it.”

He recommends the state use money from a sale to expand a 409-acre property to the west of the Welts area that he called a more successful site.

“Don’t go around picking little pieces out of neighborhoods,” he said.

The agency is not interested in selling the property, and enforcement is typically on patrol rather than stationed, but Rotton said she has been in contact with the dike district regarding fencing and is investigating a portable restroom facility.

Bunting said she sympathizes with neighbors disturbed by hunting and fishing, but does not want to see the property taken away from walkers.

“I would just like to see it kept in public ownership for passive recreation,” Bunting said.

The Welts property, also called the Samish River Unit, is on the west bank of the Samish River, south of Bayview-Edison Road. It is one of 16 properties in Skagit, Snohomish and San Juan counties that collectively form Fish and Wildlife’s 16,700-acre Skagit Wildlife Area.

The agency owns and manages the property, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) controls a Wetland Reserve Program conservation easement on it, protecting it from development and requiring some restoration, said Loren Brokaw, Fish and Wildlife restoration projects manager.

The proposed restoration project was awarded funding from the USDA Farm Bill, at about $3,700 per acre, NRCS representative Kathy Kilcoyne said at the meeting.

Construction is anticipated to begin next summer.

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