What the heck is that? Port’s wetland bank near Puyallup repays development elsewhere

Face it — the words “Port of Tacoma” don’t conjure images of marsh grass, long-legged herons and meandering streams.

Yet here’s Dave Myers, a muck-booted project engineer for the port, clumping through the mud of a 40-acre wetland near Puyallup, talking like a gardener tallying the annual crop.

“The rushes and sedges are coming in pretty well,” he says, surveying the handiwork of three years.

It lacks a sexy name, but the Upper Clear Creek Mitigation Site represents a $9 million project, the biggest of its kind ever undertaken by the port — a wetland bank, set for completion later this year. Think of Myers as the sedge fund manager.

The site, once pasture and farmland owned by the Sherwood family, sits between westbound River Road and Pioneer Way, shortly before the two roads converge at one of Tacoma’s side doors.

For onlookers riding the Sounder train, or drivers glancing sideways, the area invites what-the-heck-is-that curiosity: Round rings of yellow hay dot a landscape of oddly arranged stumps and small hills amid scattered pools of standing water, especially after a stiff rain.

“We do get questions here and there,” Myers says.

It’s a mitigation bank, to use the bureaucratic term — an area that allows the port to compensate for heavier, industrial development elsewhere on the agency’s lands.

Myers uses simpler language: “Taking a crummy wetland and making it better.”

The bank analogy is a conscious reference to financial concepts. When finished, the restored and rehabilitated wetlands within the project will generate environmental credit. As the site matures, trees and plants rise, and as wildlife and fish begin to use it, as they have already, the value will increase.

“We’ll make a 23-acre deposit into the bank, so to speak,” Myers says. “It grows. It’s just like interest on money.”

The Clear Creek site is the result of a settlement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency: a kind of payback for a knowing transgression that dates to 2008. That year, port officials hurriedly cleared a chunk of land between the Blair and Hylebos waterways after discovering an infestation of invasive vineyard snails.

Port officials, believing they faced an emergency, didn’t obtain proper permits before clearing the land, drawing the EPA’s ire. A lawsuit and negotiations followed; the parties settled their differences in 2013.

The Clear Creek project trades new, restored wetlands for the habitat lost in the snail eradication. In part, the design restores the creek’s original channel to a state predating 1930s-vintage diversions and channeling.

Among other things, that means adding 145,000 plants spread among 42 different species, and other fish-friendly features.

“Not salmon-spawning area,” Myers says, “but salmon-developing area. You try to create the environment for the birds and the bugs that the salmon feed on.”

Myers spoke over the whizzing din of workers attacking the site with earth augers, poking hole after hole and plopping plants into the soil. He pointed to one of 52 hummocks on the site — small hills sheltered by gnarled stumps (in technical parlance, “large woody material structures.”)

The stumps aren’t just stumps. They’re more like tree ends, local logging remnants that have been shoved 20 feet below the surface of the soil, intended to guard the hummocks from erosion and mimic the variety of nature’s landscaping.

“Nature doesn’t build flat surfaces,” Myers says. “A change in elevation allows us to plant different vegetation on the tops of the hummocks: pines, cedars, hemlocks. You’ll end up with more a of true, diverse habitat. You’ll also end up with more of what used to be here a thousand years ago.”

Birds are responding, Myers says. Hawks and eagles are perching on 22 standing snags, or upright dead trees installed like fence posts and helpfully drilled with holes to attract smaller feathered denizens. Herons from a rookery near the site have started to tiptoe among the ponds and forage.

The Clear Creek site has another, broader benefit.

It adds a link to a chain of habitat-building sites within the Puyallup River watershed. The state owns land further upstream, and a private hatchery feeds into the creek system, not far from neighboring Swan Creek, owned by Tacoma’s park district.

“The more habitat you put in an area and the bigger that piece becomes, the better it is for the environment,” Myers says. “Little sites are good, but when you can combine little sites into bigger sites, it makes it that much better for the animals and wildlife that are using it.”