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In June 2011, Marshall Johnson, principal restoration ecologist for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, discovered a 1935 aerial photograph of the Sandy River Delta. It showed a thick forest of willows and cottonwoods. He then found another photo from 1948: the forest had been mostly removed to make way for a new highway. The new construction, including a tide gate that blocked salmon from swimming into the wetland in search of food, made the landscape inhospitable for the birds and plants that once called the area home. 

The Columbia River, from the Bonneville Dam to the Pacific, is one of 28 “estuaries of national significance” designated by the EPA—it provides integral habitat for salmon and hundreds of other fish and wildlife species. But since 1880, huge swaths of the floodplain habitat have been destroyed. The Estuary Partnership works to revive those ecosystems. In the case of the $1 million, 1,000-acre restoration project at the Sandy River Delta, Johnson is working from the aerial photo to reconstruct what the wetland had looked like before the human disturbance. His organization partnered with the US Forest Service to restore the delta’s original biodiversity, mowing invasive canary grass with a 30-foot combine; planting 1,400 cottonwoods, 1,200 willows, and 600 spirea; and trucking in massive boulders and logs to improve channels for salmon. 

There’s still plenty of work to do, but the Sandy project has revealed verdant patches of hope: in one clearing, a thicket of blackberry has given way to native saplings, and on another ridge cottonwood cuttings planted by volunteers blanket two acres. Every day, it’s looking more and more like 1935.

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