9 Reasons Oregon Should Restore and Protect Tidal Swamps

Little-known areas are vital to wildlife, fisheries, mitigating climate change, and coastal communities

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9 Reasons Oregon Should Restore and Protect Tidal Swamps
A kayaker enjoys paddling through a tidal swamp in the Nehalem River estuary in Oregon
A kayaker paddles through a tidal swamp in the Nehalem River estuary in Oregon. Dominated by Sitka spruce, this ecosystem is a rich haven for salmon, migratory birds, and other wildlife, and captures a substantial amount of carbon.
Laura Brophy

A tidal swamp may sound like an unfortunate accident of nature—a muddy, dark, wasted space that is best logged, drained, and “reclaimed” for pasture or other uses. That was the prevalent practice in the Pacific Northwest until the 1970s, often to the detriment of Pacific Northwest estuaries.

As it turns out, these brackish transition zones between river and sea, also known as tidal forests, sequester vast amounts of climate-warming carbon, reduce flooding, improve water quality, stabilize the soil, moderate water temperature, and provide exceptional wildlife habitat.

The Oregon Global Warming Commission has a chance to help protect and restore forested tidal wetlands when it meets in June to determine how the state can best fight climate change. Here are nine reasons the commission should prioritize action on tidal swamps:

  1. Tidal swamps support nature-based industries, such as commercial and recreational fisheries, that are key to the economic vitality of Oregon communities.
  2. These tidal wetlands slow and absorb floodwaters, helping protect coastal communities.
  3. Tidal swamps are laced with deep tidal channels that support massive numbers of aquatic insects, an important food source for salmon and other wild fish.
  4. The brackish waters of these areas provide a refuge between rivers and the sea where young salmon can make the physiological transformation from fresh water to salt water in preparation for the ocean stage of their lives.
  5. Oregon’s tidal forests are dominated by Sitka spruce, also known as coastal or tidewater spruce, which can grow in fresh and brackish water. More than half of Oregon’s coastal tidal wetlands were forested in the 1800s. Today, all but about 5% of these areas have been logged and converted to pasture or other uses.
  6. The Pacific Northwest’s tidal forests store more carbon per acre than almost any other place in the world, according to Oregon scientist and tidal swamp champion Laura Brophy. This is one reason these under-appreciated areas could be an essential part of Oregon’s plan for dealing with climate change.
  7. Coastal tribal nations, stewards of Oregon’s estuaries from time immemorial, use spruce roots to weave baskets. Basket-weaving is functional and sustains tribal cultural identity and their way of life.
  8. These areas provide exceptional habitat for a wide range of wildlife, from marsh wrens to mink, and bats to bobcats.
  9. As the sea level rises, scientists say forests at the upstream end of estuaries will help sustain estuarine habitats and provide room for landward habitat migration so these areas can continue to provide the benefits listed here.

Restoring tidal swamps can improve the health of fisheries and wildlife, and protect coastal communities from rising seas, increased flooding, and other consequences of climate change. These swamps can be rejuvenated by removing dikes, returning the natural flow of water and sediment into the area, re-excavating channels, and planting native vegetation.

Also, through estuary management plans, local governments can help implement the commission’s goals by identifying areas for protection and restoration, as well as aligning uses of these spaces to ensure estuaries benefit communities and the ecosystem. Urge the Oregon Global Warming Commission to make the state’s tidal swamps and other coastal wetlands part of the climate solution when it meets June 4.

Jos Hill is a project director and Elizabeth Ruther is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.

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