Charlie Stenvall skims an airboat across Willapa Bay on a placid summer morning, rousing 15 Canada geese whose complaints sound like an unsupervised junior high band practice.

Ahead, flocks of western sandpipers flash white and gray, as the shorebirds turn away from the approaching boat in choreographed waves of wings. Nearby, a Caspian tern dives into shallows after small fish, while in the distance two peregrine falcons flush wading birds off open mudflats. A bald eagle perches in a snag on the shore of the bay’s forested Long Island, watching the boat pass below.

With a turn of the giant fan, Stenvall slides the boat down an alley of inch-deep water and enters an expanse of grass growing thicker than field corn.

Stenvall, manager of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, steers into a pocket of water enclosed in a wall of green. He cuts the airboat’s engine, and the rumble of the fan blades whirs to a stop. Then, near silence. The honking of geese and screech of raptors fade into the light breeze, replaced by the faint scritch of swaying blades of grass.

To the newcomer, the lush meadows, broken only by vein-like channels that gather the outgoing tide, might seem like some of nature’s best work. But to Stenvall, the silent savanna sends an earsplitting message that precious Willapa Bay—tucked into Washington’s rainy southwestern pocket—is in peril.

The culprit isn’t the belching factories, agricultural runoff, and urban sprawl that endanger most of the nation’s great bays. Instead, the scariest threat to Willapa is this spreading carpet of grass, Spartina alterniflora.

“We have sort of an idyllic estuary”

Willapa Bay, also known as Shoalwater, is the largest estuary between San Francisco and Puget Sound. It boasts one of the least-spoiled environments and the healthiest salmon runs south of Canada, produces one in every four oysters farmed in the United States, and is a favorite pit stop for tens of thousands of migratory birds.

And it’s in trouble.

The infestation of Spartina, imported by accident from the East Coast, collects enough silt to raise the bay floor by up to a foot, turning much of Willapa’s enviably productive tidal zone into a giant, unkempt lawn. At the same time, other introduced plants and animals and two opportunistic species of native shrimp also threaten to spoil the pristine bay.

“If you lose Willapa Bay, it’s of both state and national significance,” says Kim Patten (’83 Ph.D. Horticulture), a Washington State University researcher and associate professor of horticulture who is a leader in the battle for the bay.

“I think it’s a national treasure, because every estuary in North America would try to emulate it. There’s no other estuary out there like it,” Patten says. “We have sort of an idyllic estuary. It’s not perfect, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a very functioning estuary. You don’t get better than that.”

Environmentally, aquatic landscapes from Chesapeake Bay to San Francisco Bay are infamous for what they’ve lost. Willapa Bay’s protectors want to make it renowned for what it kept. They’re starting to get noticed.

Last June, the National Audubon Society ranked Willapa Bay second—just behind part of Florida’s Everglades—in its Cooling the Hot Spots report detailing wildlife areas threatened by invasive species. That followed a similar listing in the National Wildlife Refuge Association’s 2002 report, Silent Invasion. And the Nature Conservancy has made protecting the bay and its rich watershed one of its highest Washington priorities.

Senator Patty Murray (’72 Recreation) and her colleagues helped secure another $1 million in federal funding for this season’s work, the second in a six-year, multi-partner plan to eradicate Spartina. The state is pitching in hundreds of thousands more.

“It’s so common for us to not realize what we’ve got until we lost it,” says U.S. Representative Brian Baird, D-Vancouver. “This wonderful bay faces some real threats. Spartina, for example, is a nightmare. It can turn the Willapa Bay into the Willapa Prairie.”

In a lonely wooded place

Willapa Bay didn’t always garner so much attention, and many of its residentsÊhuman and animal bothÊembraced the quiet life.

For generations, Native Americans gathered shellfish, caught salmon, and built sheltered winter villages on the shores of Willapa, pronounced “WIL-uh-puh.” The name comes from the Indian Kwalhioqua, or “in a lonely wooded place.”

That description still fit the bay in November 1805, when Corps of Discovery explorer Captain William Clark, scouting the “low pondey countrey” north of the Columbia, missed it entirely.

Fifty years later, just after the start of California’s gold rush, early white settlers found treasure of their own in Willapa: oysters. Towns such as Oysterville and the now-defunct Diamond CityÊnamed for a bleached mountain of shells piled at the northern tip of Long Island that glistened when the sun pierced the cloud coverÊsprang up at mid-century to ship oysters by the hundreds of millions to San Francisco. The salmon canneries came too, spawning more villages, and the bay buzzed with commerce.

But in the 19th century, Willapa Bay again became a lonelier place. The native Olympia oysters and salmon runs dwindled. Many people left, and some of their towns have long since rotted into the woods. Oystermen spared their livelihoods by importing large Pacific oysters, which to this day they farm like a crop, as their neighbors grow cranberries and timber on Willapa’s sparsely developed shores.

Oyster growers of the late 1800s may have unwittingly imported an unseen menace that would haunt their great-grandchildren: Spartina. For generations, the new plants were mere tufts on the bay’s 47,000 acres of tidal flats. Over time, however, the grass quietly adapted to an environment with no natural predators. By last summer, Spartina had infested 12,000 acres and was expanding 20 percent a year. It already had pushed shorebirds off some of their best foraging grounds and was poised to elbow out oyster growers.

“All I’m doing is killing stuff”

For a bunch of bird-loving, oysters-on-the-half-shell types, the language used for ridding Willapa Bay of Spartina is downright militaristic.

“All I’m doing is killing stuff,” said Jonathan Bates, an equipment operator for the wildlife refuge, one day last July. At the time, he was rumbling across Spartina meadows aboard a tank-like tractor outfitted with sprayer nozzles to mist the grass with Rodeo herbicide.

Closer to the tide line, where smaller Spartina bunches called “clones” hadn’t yet formed meadows, airboat crews drew herbicide pistols and blasted the grass with blue-dyed herbicide.

“The plan,” says airboat crew leader Darrin Zavodsky, “was to divide and conquer.”

The tractors all are armed with GPS units to map their progress, and at least one has infrared sensors that signal the sprayer nozzles to fire only when it detects plant matter.

Last summer, the wildlife refuge, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and the bay’s oyster growers treated Spartina on 5,000 acres in the bay. It was a landmark year: they killed nearly 10 times more grass than any previous year and, for the first time, gained ground against Spartina. This summer, partners including WSU and the University of Washington have mapped out a strategy to treat another 3,000 acres while mopping up new shoots on mudflats they treated in 2003.

Until 2003, more than a decade of spraying, mowing, and tilling Spartina had proven futile, while a UW study of plant-eating insects remains unproven. Stenvall, the wildlife refuge chief, credits WSU researcher Patten, whom he jokes is Willapa’s own “mad scientist,” with finding a way to make common herbicides kill the pesky grass in harsh conditions—without harming the bay’s fragile ecosystem.

This year, Patten’s work should bring a new weapon to their arsenal: federal and state agencies’ expected approval of imazapyr for use in the bay after Patten exhaustively tested the herbicide. Imazapyr, compared to Rodeo, requires less chemical and shorter drying times to kill Spartina.

Stepping-stone for birds

Patten, an expert in small-fruit horticulture, naturally spends many workdays in the greenhouses and bogs at the Cranberry Research Station on the Long Beach Peninsula, the 25-mile finger of land that separates Willapa Bay from the Pacific Ocean. At other times, he’s testing ways to kill Spartina or burrowing shrimp that plague the oyster industry.

On a spring day last year, however, Patten was up to his wader-encased shins in Willapa Bay mud off Porter PointÊcounting bird poop. The whitish plops, along with stick-like footprints, are helping Patten document where migrating birds feed during stopovers at Willapa Bay. He also employs high-tech surveillance cameras mounted on platforms in the bay and lower-tech surveys with binocular-armed volunteers to collect his data.

Patten’s research isn’t complete, but his aim is to scientifically document what he and various bird experts already know from observation: shorebirds, whether dunlins and dowitchers or sandpipers and plovers, HATE Spartina.

“You still have skeptics out there that do not believe Spartina affects shorebirds,” Patten says.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in 1937 to protect habitat for migrating birds. But as Spartina has thickened, Willapa’s legions of shorebirds have thinned.

Shorebirds flock to unspoiled tidal flats to peck for worms, midges, nematodes, and other critters that make up the “groceries” that fuel the birds’ long migrations along the West Coast. Some also will forage among the stubble and wrack of dead Spartina, but they won’t venture into living meadows where predators might lurk.

“Willapa Bay is one of the few stepping-stones of habitat left for migrating birds from South and Central America to Canada and Alaska,” says Nina Carter, policy director for Audubon Washington. She helped lobby her national organization to train a spotlight on Willapa’s disappearing habitat for short-billed dowitchers and tens of thousands of other shorebirds that migrate through each year.

Environmentalists to a point

The sun rises through a September mist that covers Willapa Bay like a down comforter.

John Herrold eases the family boat, the Tokeland, over submerged oyster beds marked only by spindly branches poking into the mud 14 feet beneath the bay’s surface. He flips a lever to winch an oyster “bag”—a heavy-gauge metal basket hanging from steel cable—off the port side, until the bag’s open mouth dredges against the soft bay floor. He lowers a twin bag off the starboard side.

Three and a half minutes later, Herrold pushes the lever again, and the port-side bag rises with a groan of the winch, slightly tilting the 95-year-old boat toward the bag as it emerges from the water, chock-full of oysters.

His brother, Roy, grasps the bag in gloved hands and, in one quick motion, swings the load toward the boat’s cabin and unlatches the basket. Six hundred pounds of oysters crash to the deck. Roy plucks an orange starfish out of the pile, as his brother lowers the empty bag back into the bay.

“It’s not scientific at all,” John says, reaching for the starboard lever.

An hour and 360 bushels of oysters later, the Herrolds steer the Tokeland toward the family home on Cougar Bend, where the Naselle River pours into Willapa Bay. The brothers are third-generation oystermen, not uncommon at Willapa, and one branch of their family tree stretches back to the Chinook tribe that foraged for shellfish before Europeans arrived.

“It’s always the same around here,” muses Roy, “but it’s always different.”

“The big change is Spartina,” John says. “I’ve seen it [go] from nothing to what it is now.”

“For the most part we’ve kept our beds clear,” he adds, pointing out some of their tidelands where the grasses have taken over the higher elevations but have been painstakingly cleared closer to the water. “We do everything it takes.”

As with Spartina, the oyster industry—worth about $32 million a year to the region—suffers the brunt of any environmental imbalance on the bay. Leaky septic fields and unknown bacteria sources harm water quality, while some of the bay’s 40 invasive species—including voracious European green crabs and deadly oyster drills—threaten their wallets.

“Oyster growers have always been environmentalists to a point. We have to be, because we need clean water,” John says.

Growers also are battling the “political nightmare” of burrowing shrimp. Unlike Spartina, the shrimp are natives. But they have been multiplying out of control since the 1950s—perhaps in response to declining predators such as salmon and sturgeon and the damming of the nearby Columbia River, which historically flushed the bay with fresh water, killing salt-loving shrimp.

Last year, oyster growers agreed to phase out their controversial, 40-year-old practice of controlling shrimp with carbaryl, a pesticide found in flea powder. The decision settled a costly legal battle with environmental groups, but it also left growers without an effective, affordable way to keep the shrimp in check. Patten and other scientists are helping growers try to find the solution, as the carbaryl clock ticks out by 2012.

Meanwhile, as with Spartina, overpopulated shrimp threaten more than just oysters and clams. They destroy tidal wildlife habitats for many species.

Spartina has been devastating to the birds,” says Dick Wilson, a Bay Center oyster grower and bird-watcher, “but so have the burrowing shrimp.”

Nahcotta oystermen Dick and Brian Sheldon are working on both problems, but it costs plenty. For example, they figure in the past few years they’ve spent $6,000 an acre to clear the Spartina from just one of their 90-acre plots on the bay. The land is only worth $200 an acre, and it’s in a spot that’s frankly better for feeding birds than fattening oysters.

“Most of us have a family history of up to 100 years in the bay,” Dick Sheldon says. “As an oysterman, as a person, I just couldn’t see the bay going down the toilet.”

Eric Apalategui wrote about Pacific Foods founder and CEO Chuck Eggert in the fall 2003 Washington State Magazine.

Bill Wagner is a photographer for the Longview Daily News.

Biologist Sally Hacker at WSU Vancouver also combats Spartina, though a different species. Spartina anglica threatens Puget Sound. Washington State Magazine reported on Hacker’s work in Summer 2002.

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Gallery: Photographs of Willapa Bay by Bill Wagner