The Age of the Anthropocene as a concept took hold of our global imagination with our new millennium, and was born from the growing acknowledgement that humans are now meddling with their planet on an epochal scale. The traditional paradigm of Conservation as restoring an ecosystem to an idyllic, natural, and pre-human condition is not wholly useful for Humboldt Bay, because this region has been human-inhabited for a very long time. The human disruptions this region is dealing with today, however, did not begin until after the bay’s swift and dramatic Euro-American invasion in the mid-nineteenth century.
Currently there are no fewer than seventy active conservation projects underway on Humboldt Bay—projects addressing issues as diverse as water quality in the bay and its tributaries, soil contamination, habitat restoration, hydrology, sea level rise, ocean acidification, non-native species invasion, as well as adapting to (and dealing with) a significant industrial legacy. These conservation projects have undeniable cultural and economic value as well as ecological urgency, and most of the projects are welcomed, though finding funding for them remains highly competitive. The video for this essay highlights just a few of these projects—chosen for their elevated level of community awareness, as well as for the imaginative and metaphorical visual elements one can find in them.
The Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge supervises numerous conservation projects on the 4,000 acres of habitat they manage, and one of their biggest jobs is the dense-flowered cordgrass (Spartina densiflora) eradication project. This ubiquitous non-native marsh grass hitched a ride to Humboldt Bay in the ballast of South American ships more than a century ago, and this species now aggressively infests almost all the bay’s marshland. With a fibrous brown mat that overtakes other species, Spartina is granted the ignoble status of a villainous invader. Amphibious Marsh Master tanks mow it flat and then mulch it; Conservation Corps workers grind up its rhizomes with saw-bladed weed whackers and use portable flame-throwers to incinerate new shoots. It’s a disturbingly counterintuitive spectacle to witness, but this battle is essential for restoring the bay’s botanical diversity—including native marsh species like pickleweed, Humboldt Bay owl’s clover, and Point Reyes bird’s beak. Indeed this is a war of global proportions—as several species of Spartina have made unwelcome incursions up and down the U.S. west coast, as well as in China, Africa, and Europe.
European beachgrass is another invader—deliberately introduced in 1901 to stabilize the sand dunes along the northwestern edge of the bay. By the mid-1970s, this species flanked much of the local coastal foredune system, and (similar to Spartina) created a dense monoculture that displaced native plants and impeded sand flow. Native dune plants are adapted to low nutrient, harsh, and sandy conditions, and when these conditions become fertilized, stabilized, and sheltered, non-natives can move in to their detriment. Yellow bush lupine—yet another invader—also stabilizes the dunes and creates fertility hot spots, enabling invasives to overcome natives like yellow sand verbena, seaside buckwheat, beach pea, beach evening primrose, and the endangered beach layia—all of which need semi-stable, maritime sands. Eradication of the beachgrass and lupine requires plenty of pulling and digging by hand, but local groups like the Friends of the Dunes promote these physically demanding and largely volunteer efforts with festive and communitarian flair. Once cleared, the dunes do an excellent job of restoring themselves—with vibrant and varied blankets of color where monotonous and hirsute hillocks once reigned.
Another mechanical method for restoring the bay is to let it return to its once-banished places—reinstating the historical tidal prism to sites cordoned-off by more than a century of diking. The McDaniel Slough Restoration Project in the city of Arcata and the Freshwater Farms Reserve just east of Eureka are two such projects, where dikes were breached and old tide gates flung open to allow the bay’s influence (along with birds, fish, and other estuarine species) to repopulate long-lost marshland. Watching an extra-high tide surge through one of these reopened apertures is indeed a thrilling sight, but reactivating a wetland requires more than renewing its contact with the sea. New sloughs, channels, hummocks, and swales may need to be constructed, plant life restored, and human-habited edges protected with new levees. New fill might also need to be added to correct the elevation of subsided land. These resurrected wetlands offer welcoming sites for recreation and leisure, and can buffer built zones from flooding and sea level rise.
The hapless Palco Marsh appears to have largely eluded the celebrity status of these other restored wetlands. The City of Eureka purchased this hundred-acre former city dump and mill yard nearly three decades ago, and has been incrementally restoring its tidal prism, marshland, and adjacent riparian woodlands. A variety of shorebirds and rare native plants have since claimed the site, but so have scores of clandestine encampments that have given this place its unsettling frisson. The Palco Marsh is also bisected by the old Northwestern Pacific right-of-way—a decaying track bed that serves as a furtive but handy thoroughfare for all manner of pedestrians and cyclists. This informal transportation corridor (along with its much-maligned marsh) will be critical to Eureka’s forthcoming citywide waterfront trail system, the planning and engineering of which is currently under way. If this admirable trail scheme moves forward as planned, big changes are likely in store for this troubled but fascinating stepchild of Humboldt Bay’s family of conservation initiatives.
Perhaps the bay’s most tactically challenging conservation projects arose from its lengthy industrial history, when decades of unregulated dumping created shoreline hot spots that now require complex and expensive remediation. Among these projects, the Tuluwat Village Restoration stands out as a visionary example of community and cultural perseverance in confronting this unfortunate legacy. From 1870 to 1990, this ancient island site in the center of the bay was used as a dry dock facility, and had over the years become horrifically contaminated. The site’s original inhabitants—the native Wiyot people—regained ownership of their sacred island in 2000, then commenced the exceptional challenge of repairing a site not only laden with heavy metals, hydrocarbons, dioxins and other industrial contaminants, but also filled with thousands of years of irreplaceable cultural artifacts and even ancestral remains. There were truckloads of debris to dislodge, an ancient shell mound to stabilize, and tons of contaminated soil to barge out. There were oxidizing agents to spray, a geo-textile cap to secure, and clean fill to haul in—along with numerous federal, state, and local regulations to rigorously follow. This work was finally completed in 2014, and—for the first time since an infamous massacre in 1860 destroyed their culture—the Wiyots were once again able to perform their sacred World Renewal Ritual at this healed and vibrant site.
Another undeniably conspicuous and arguably beautiful hot spot is the bay’s last remaining pulp mill—in fact California’s last in existence. This magisterial, Oz-like complex operated from 1964 until 2008, when its final operators (the China-based company Lee & Man) abruptly shuttered the mill during a global collapse of the price of pulp for paper. Lee & Man left behind a legacy of contamination not exclusively of its own making—including three million gallons of caustic chemicals housed in leaking tile tanks, twenty thousand gallons of various acids and corrosive sludge, along with PCBs, dioxins, lead, and asbestos both entombed in debris piles and under the ground. In 2013, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District rescued this languishing site, and with the fortuitous help of the EPA, took on the considerable challenge of cleaning it up. The Harbor District is now methodically coordinating the site’s reclamation, with sanguine expectations for its eventual rebirth as a center for aquaculture operations, legal cannabis cultivation, a wood-pellet factory, and other value-added manufacturing scenarios to relocalize this region’s now largely outsourced natural resource economy.