Olympia coalition spearheads effort to protect great blue herons and West Bay

A new nonprofit organization was established this month to help protect Olympia’s lone colony of great blue herons.

The Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Preservation also launched an online petition titled Save the West Bay Woods. As of Thursday afternoon, 143 people had signed the petition, which calls on the city to conserve the West Bay woods and Schneider Creek basin.

The coalition formed in response to the proposed Wells Townhomes on the city’s west side. The development has attracted opposition because it’s near the only great blue heron colony — also known as a rookery or heronry — in Olympia. One point of contention has been the development’s entrance path at the end of Dickinson Avenue Northwest. The path would carry people through a wooded area that contains more than a dozen heron nests perched high in the trees.

Daniel Einstein, chairman of the coalition’s five-member board, said science and city policy are disconnected. As an example, Einstein cited a 2013 city report that outlines habitat and stewardship strategies in Olympia. Despite the report’s call for “habitat enhancement” and other protections in West Bay, the city lacks policies that could protect the herons and prevent the townhomes from being built in the woods, Einstein said.

The conservation strategies for the West Bay habitat also fall in line with the coalition’s mission, he said. However, the coalition’s vision extends beyond great blue herons to protect all wildlife in a corridor that stretches 11/2 miles.

“We’re advocating setting aside all of these woods, including Schneider Creek. These areas are imminently threatened,” said Einstein, noting the vicinity’s existing developments. “I don’t think any of us are going to recognize West Bay five years from now.”

Located on private property just north of the Olympia Food Co-op’s west-side store, the Wells Townhomes project is still waiting for a permit. A preliminary plan calls for three two-unit townhomes along with a six-bay detached garage. Each unit measures 1,237 square feet, according to the site plan.

South Sound architect and developer Glenn Wells told The Olympian earlier this summer that he doesn’t want to remove any trees or “do anything that’s going to harm” the herons.

The city’s Site Plan Review Committee postponed its decision on the project Aug. 6 to gather more information. The committee’s decision would be subject to appeal, regardless of whether the project is approved or denied.

Olympia is waiting for the developer to respond to several issues raised by city staff, such as requirements for easements and utility connections, senior planner Cari Hornbein said. She noted that the developer is trying to meet the city’s stormwater requirements and has been working with biologists.

“The ball is now in his court,” Hornbein said of the developer.

Olympia resident Elizabeth Rodrick, vice president of the Black Hills Audubon Society, said the heronry’s fate is uncertain if the townhomes are built. The heronry has lasted as long as it has, she said, because the West Bay area serves as a good food source for the birds.

“Human disturbance is definitely a factor,” said Rodrick, a wildlife biologist. “It’s hard to predict how much disturbance the herons can take before they leave.”

Rodrick said the city needs to update its Critical Areas Ordinance, which protects only endangered species. Great blue herons are classified as a priority species and are not protected under the ordinance, according to the city.

To raise awareness, OCEP is reaching out for partners other than the Black Hills Audubon Society. This week, the new coalition joined a network called ECO Net, which spans 12 counties and includes more than 450 members. The network is part of the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency that coordinates recovery efforts for the sound.

ECO Net is a resource hub for members with similar goals, said Alicia Lawver, spokeswoman for Puget Sound Partnership. “It’s a way for them to connect with others,” Lawver said of ECO Net members. “The huge benefit is opening the door to conversation so that people can collaborate.”