On a gray, drizzly morning last week, the raucous sounds of the neighbors brought a smile to Michele Zukerberg’s face.
Off in the distance, the screeching of nesting great blue herons could be heard from the tall forest trees. A pair of Canada geese seemed to object to the presence of several human visitors.
Visually, harbor seals could be seen lounging on old log booms. Buffleheads rippled the water of Chapman Bay as they dove beneath the surface while feeding. A heron casually flew overhead, toward the rookery that is home to about 100 herons.
Along the roadway leading from the parking area, moss clung to dead trees, and newly planted trees grew within protective baskets.
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Broken shells and a couple of broken robin eggs littered the road. They were left behind by gulls and crows that used the pavement to break open the protective coverings to get at the innards.
To Zukerberg, the sights and sounds are all part of what makes the Woodard Bay Natural Conservation Area north of Olympia so special.
It is even better now, said the area’s manager, with the completion of the environmental education and interpretive facilities at Weyer Point.
The state Department of Natural Resources will hold a celebration of the renovations at the site Wednesday.
“This is a very special place,” Zukerberg said. “But we had to be very deliberate about everything we did so we didn’t disrupt the wildlife.”
For thousands of years, area Indian tribes used the area for fishing, shellfish harvesting and gathering supplies to make baskets and other items. There are shellfish processing sites all around the conservation area.
Weyerhaeuser Co. used the site from the 1920s to the 1980s as a log transfer facility. Logs were brought by train from tree farms, dumped into the bays and made into log rafts to be hauled to a mill in Everett.
Now covering 870 acres, the site was designated a conservation area by the Legislature in 1987, one of the first in the state.
While the eight-month, $1.5 million project is certainly an improvement, visitors should not expect facilities typical of a state park.
After a three-quarter-mile walk along a roadway, visitors come to the new environmental education center at Weyer Point.
The outdoor education area, with panels that tell of the history of the area, is more of an open picnic shelter. The skid shack that served as the boom foreman’s office during the area’s logging heyday serves as a tiny museum.
The intent, reflecting the agency’s mandate, was to provide a place for people to learn about the ecological value and human history of the site, while providing low-impact recreational opportunities.
Power to the area is provided by solar panels atop of the education area. Rain gardens trap and filter runoff before it enters one of the bays.
Landscape architect John Barker and the agency were deliberate in how they added features and structures. The meadow area around the center was planted with native vegetation such as lupine, yaro, camas and violets. Trees removed during the work were used to create benches in the area, or as landscape features around the center.
The design also recognizes the history of tribal and logging use of the area. Replica dugout canoes depict the craft Squaxin Indians used in the protected waters. There also is a three-quarter version of a sea-going canoe.
Some rails from the tracks used by Weyerhaeuser are embedded in a sidewalk. The new structures have an industrial look to reflect the logging operation. Some pilings were left in the water, serving as roosts for seabirds such as double-breasted cormorants and sites for purple martin birdhouses. About half of the original pier remains, now used by as many as 3,000 bats.
“Our whole approach had the whole underlying goal of ecological protection,” Zukerberg said.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.
“The kids love to crawl all over the canoes,” she said. “The beach area also is popular with kids. They can find crabs, throw rocks and sticks into the water.”
During seasonal openings, kayakers can use a new launch built at the parking lot. Three trails provide more than 2.5 miles of hiking.
“People want to be outdoors. This gives them access to the water, which you don’t always have around Puget Sound,” Zukerberg added.
What makes the area so popular is the feeling of solitude it offers.
“Even on sunny weekends, it doesn’t feel crowded,” she said. “Even when the parking lot is full, people are dispersed. They’re on the Loop Trail, walking along the road, exploring the beach.”
Reaching this point hasn’t been an easy task. Earlier work involved the removal of 2,140 tons of material tainted with creosote, taking 1,220 pilings out of Henderson Inlet and dealing with 12,000 cubic yards of fill.
Each day for the eight months of this final phase, Zukerberg was on site making sure the work was sticking to the design and contracts.
Without hesitation, she said all the effort by the agency, contractors and partners was worth it.
“I’m really delighting in watching people coming and using the area, watching the plants come out, watching the animals,” she said. “I do feel like it was successful. I hope people find ways to connect with the area.”
It is a process Zukerberg hopes can be repeated elsewhere.
“The more development there is in southern Puget Sound, the more of a refuge this place becomes,” Zukerberg said. “We’re seeing more and more species use this area.”
“There’s so many places where we can tell these stories, bring the public to these places while protecting their resources,” she said.