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Protected Wetlands

Posts: 11
Location: Portland, OR
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Hi folks.

Last week we fell in love with a 37 acre property in Tenino, Thurston Co WA. We put in an offer and it was accepted on Sunday. We walked the property again and found some very, very special spots along the seasonal creek, including beaver dams! I was absolutely enchanted by this riparian zone. We were elated for the first day, then jumped headfirst into our due diligence process. Among other things, the place has turned out to be 20% wetlands. That's great, right? But those wetlands include a buffer, which can be up to 300'. That's a football field, remind you.

The wetlands, delineated and undelineated, and their buffers, leave 12 "usable" acres. They aren't listed as being the super-duper-special class I wetlands, but they are mapped by the county. I was pretty winded by this news at first, and my partner initially wanted to back out all together. I coaxed him back from the ledge, and gave myself a few minutes to shift perspectives. On observing myself, I saw how the findings moved me into a perspective of scarcity, the feeling that 12 acres can't be enough when I "meant to" "have" 37. The sense of limitation rubs my partner the wrong way, and the possibility of oversight gives us both a little bit of the creeps.

But... when I shift into permaculture brain, I think, wow! Look at all that zone 5! I think of the opportunity and honor of stewardship, the diversity, the beauty, the privacy it offers, the foraging potential. Another point worth mentioning is that the land is adjacent to 6,200 acres of state forests - THAT'S A LOT OF ZONE 5

Then the questions start to bubble up. When reading these questions, I want to clarify that in most cases I'm talking about these activities in the BUFFER ZONE, not the actual wetland.

What can stewardship mean when we're talking about a designated/protected "natural resource"? Am I even allowed to plant native plants in a protected wetland? What about pulling blackberry? Harvesting and cultivating mushrooms? Cultivating stands of wild medicines? Or are the allowable activities limited by the belief sadly held by many conservationists: that human impact is negative impact, that we are as a species and by nature, not a part of nature and should stay the hell out of it.

Can we camp on it? Can we let others camp on it?

I found information that says we can garden on it. This one confuses me. What the hell does gardening mean? Does that mean we can dig swales? Keep goats? Graze ducks?

And of course, how are these protected areas and their buffers monitored, in real life? Does the DNR fly planes overhead? Will we have unwanted visitors from agencies checking in? Is it just a handshake agreement to not be a total jerk and burn trash and dump feces in a wetland?

So y'all, if you would be so kind... Thoughts?
Should we move forward? If we do, we are planning to lower our offer.
If we do move forward and don't hit any other major snags (still waiting to get clear info on the Mazama Pocket Gopher), what can be done in the buffer zone? Am I overreacting to the word "protected"?
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Posts: 13
Location: Indianapolis, IN
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Wow, this property sounds amazing!

Personally I would jump at the chance to design a system around a thriving protected wetland! Limitations breed creativity, finding out what those limitations are would be key.

I googled "Thurston Co Washington Protected Wetland Rules" and found this potentially helpful document:

I get the feeling that if you design to meet the counties goals laid out in that document, such as "removing sediment, excess
nutrients and toxic substances from water" then you would be well within the law.

I am curious if anyone has experience on enforcement of these sorts of things.
Posts: 2167
Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
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Great to see another Thurston County person on here. My wife and I live up in north Thurston on a couple acres and I got family down in Rainer not far from Tenino. I've also done a lot of environmental restoration work in Thurston County and I've dealt with the county rules and regulations a fair bit through that.

First, the rules and regulations around wetlands are all focused on preventing damage to the wetlands not stopping all activities. They generally won't let you build, create impermeable surfaces, or fill the wetland--this also generally applies in the buffer. Though sometimes you can go through a mitigation process but with 12 acres of land outside the buffer I doubt they would let you.

But the rules don't stop you from removing invasive plants and planting native plants in the wetlands / buffers. I've done that a ton for restoration projects that were funded through WA state and even in partnership with the county. The only time we had to get permits was when we were doing earth working within the wetland or removing structures within the wetland area. But we could remove garbage and human made debris without any issues.

Camping in the buffer could be fine depending on the scale of the camping. Setting up a tent won't be an issue but building a raised platform could be if it was discovered. Though to be honest the county doesn't have the resources to really enforce the regulations in every situation. They tend to focus on the bigger violations like some one trying to fill a wetland or build a house in those areas. But I would still try to minimize your impact. If you wanted to build a camping spot I would just sheet mulch an area, put some logs around it and then fill it with woodchips. That would give you a "platform" but the materials would all pass muster with the county--they wouldn't care about that. But using gravel wouldn't be liked by the county and they also wouldn't like you creating a more formal structure. Avoid impermeable surfaces in this area.

You could easily cultivate mushrooms within that area--no one will care about that. Harvesting wild plants also wouldn't be an issue unless you were removing so much that you were essentially clearing the plants from that area. Clearing native plants and cutting down trees in a wetland buffer is generally not allowed. But if the forest is clearly overcrowded and needs a little thinning you could cut those trees down by hand. I would leave the wood there and/or use it for mushroom cultivation in that area or use it to create habitat through things like log piles. Just don't go in with equipment or clear the area--all that would negatively impact that area and could get you in trouble.

Gardening would be defined as a simple vegetable garden. Though a food forest could pass too. I wouldn't put livestock in the buffer area because the county would likely get annoyed about potential nutrient runoff from the livestock and/or damage to native plants and potentially erosion. Hand dug swales could work though I would avoid using equipment for swales. My property has a wetland buffer on it and I've done a bunch of improvement work on it to retain more water and I've planted a lot of native plants. All this work was done by hand and it's fully visible from a major road. No one minds it because the impacts are clearly positive--the previous owners used to run horses through it to the point that the soil was bare and then when they were told to stop they just let blackberries take it over. Since I've greatly improved the habitat no one seems to mind. And the wildlife love the improvements. But I do honor the spirit of the regulations and focus my efforts on creating and restoring native habitat for wildlife within the wetland buffer.

The other thing to be aware of is your neighbors. Potentially they could report you if they don't like something you're doing. So try to stay on their good side just to be safe. But even in those situations the county really doesn't have the resources to investigate every complaint. In my experience they tend to ignore technical violations in favor of focusing on big violations. Though there are always exceptions to this.

Also, if building on that property if you're close to the buffer may require a wetland delineation to confirm that the build site is outside the wetland and its buffer. Though I'm unsure when that would be triggered. I do know a person that does this work for people and I could pass his information on to you if you decide to move forward.

Best of luck and please feel free to reach out to me on here or though my site Wild Homesteading -- there is a link to my contact page at the bottom of the homepage. I'm also starting to offer consultation services to help people in our area cultivate abundance for people, plants and wildlife on their own property. My goal with this service is to help people build momentum and get past any road blocks so they can start taking action. Though I'm always happy to answer questions on here or through email.
Posts: 449
Location: Zone 8b: SW Washington
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Daron pretty much covered it all.  I would only add a couple of thoughts.  I am not an expert on wetlands nor Washington state/Thurston County laws, but I have been involved with a lot of habitat restoration work on nearby USFWS refuges since 2006.
- The site strikes me as having huge wildlife + permaculture potential.  Please keep track of your "lessons learned" and share them.
- Maybe reach out to the local Conservation District.  I'm guessing that they answer questions like yours all the time.  Most of them also have native plant sales with extremely reasonable prices.
- Like Daron said, removing invasives and planting natives will probably make everyone happy, especially the wildlife.  I highly recommend that you include a lot of native edibles in your plans.  My favorite is Evergreen huckleberry.  The great thing about the natives is that they require no care once established.  With a large acreage that is an important factor.
- I would be sure to factor flooding into your plans.  The current project at the refuge where I volunteer is designing around the 500 (vs. 100) year flood level.  I suspect this is due to concerns about climate change.
- I have done a lot of projects at the refuge and in my yard to help out native wildlife including bats, swifts, martins, turtles, native bees, salamanders, frogs, as well as many native plants.  Let me know if you're interested in what I've learned from those projects and/or would like to try them on your property.
I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay, I sleep all night and work all day. Tiny lumberjack ad:

World Domination Gardening 3-DVD set. Gardening with an excavator.

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