Highway to Hylebos heaven | Chris Carrel

Groundbreaking ceremony Aug. 14 for the Stage 7 HOV Lane project. - Courtesy photo
Groundbreaking ceremony Aug. 14 for the Stage 7 HOV Lane project.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Last week, I had one of the most unique experiences of my tenure at the Friends of the Hylebos.

With cars roaring behind me on I-5, I joined politicians and Department of Transportation officials in Fife to break ground on a highway project. If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I thought I’d be cutting the ribbon on highway projects, I’d have asked you if you’d read too many of The Mirror's medical marijuana articles.

But the fact that WSDOT (say it, "Wash-Dot") invited me, and the fact that I gladly accepted, points to some important changes that have been taking place. It also highlights some remarkable conservation achievements WSDOT has helped create right here in the Hylebos Watershed.

If you take a drive on S. 373rd Street in southern Federal Way, just east of Pacific Highway, you’ll pass through a very special place known as Spring Valley Ranch. Today, it looks like a healthy, vital floodplain of Hylebos Creek with a verdant growth of wetland plants, and green young willow and dogwood trees, all threaded through with a cool, rippling stream.

In a month or so, the site will welcome adult Chinook and coho salmon back from the ocean, as they spawn and lay down the seeds of a new generation of Hylebos salmon. Bald eagles, river otters, great blue herons, kingfishers and even osprey will be drawn by the prospect of dining on adult salmon and/or their hatchlings.

This is all courtesy WSDOT and the project I helped break ground on: The Pierce County HOV Lane project. The property had previously been farm pasture with a ditched creek, filled wetlands and the plants mowed clean to the ground every week. A few years back, the agency bought the site, bringing back to life some 1,600 feet of Hylebos Creek, restoring several acres of wetlands and planting more than 30,000 trees and plants at the site.

This came about because the WSDOT needed to restore about 20 acres of wetlands as mitigation for impacts to wetlands along I-5 that will be impacted by the construction of the Pierce County HOV lanes. Back in 2005, WSDOT was in a bind. They were having trouble finding a site large enough to accommodate all that mitigation. When I learned about their problem, I introduced them to the Spring Valley Ranch site.

This wasn’t the easiest site in the world, but the agency took it on. It fit their need, certainly. But I believe they also tackled Spring Valley Ranch because of the huge, positive environmental results they could realize. Spring Valley Ranch is the best salmon spawning habitat in the entire watershed. Restoring this site will significantly boost local salmon populations. Moreover, Spring Valley Ranch sits in the heart of the Hylebos Creek Conservation Initiative, the Friends’ effort to preserve and restore 745 acres of Hylebos habitat and open space.

Because the site is part of a larger conservation effort, it will ultimately have a larger bang for the buck. In fact, right now another 10-acre property is being restored adjacent the Ranch by a private company. And the Friends are working with the City of Federal Way to restore a wetland property on the other side of Spring Valley Ranch.

The Department of Transportation has shown that environmental mitigation isn’t just a legal obligation for construction. It can play an important role in restoring our streams and rivers — and ultimately Puget Sound.

This is why I was happy to help toss the first ceremonial shovelfuls of dirt on this highway project. The HOV lanes will add needed transit features, but it’s already making our community greener.

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