The oil industry’s plans to build new shipping terminals on the Washington coast could jeopardize a crown jewel of the Northwest’s natural heritage. The ecologically rich estuary of Grays Harbor fuels one of the western hemisphere’s most prolific feeding grounds for migrating birds even as it supports a major crab fishery and vital resources for the indigenous Quinault who have inhabited the area for thousands of years. The region’s welcoming beaches host millions of visitors annually and also support more than 24 wildlife species listed as endangered or sensitive.

Yet proposals for three developments to move crude oil from trains to ocean-going vessels could put it all at risk. Over the next few weeks, Sightline will examine some of the best research on the risks to Grays Harbor’s heritage, including economic studies by the Quinault Nation and the Surfrider Foundation. In this installment—as public comment periods on these oil projects have just begun—Sightline enumerates some of what’s at stake in Grays Harbor.

Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge

Grays Harbor is considered the single most important shorebird feeding area on the Pacific Coast. The 1,471-acre refuge lies within the bay near Hoquiam. As many as 24 shorebird species use the refuge, and up to a million shorebirds gather throughout the area in spring and fall to feed and rest. Accordingly, Grays Harbor is designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. An accessible boardwalk provides a means to develop education programs for up to a million people who visit each year.

Oyhut Wildlife Refuge and surroundings

Lying at the northern entrance to the Harbor, the 683-acre Oyhut Refuge is vital habitat for a range of waterfowl.  The area hosts one of four remaining snowy plover nesting sites in the state and has been recommended for designation as a critical habitat by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Nearby Damon Point is an important roosting site for shorebirds, gulls, and terns, and Audubon Society members have recorded 10,000 black-bellied plovers in the area. Just inside the Harbor, migrating gray whales feed, and brown pelicans roost on adjacent jetties.

North Bay Preserves

The North Bay Natural Area Preserve is said to have some of the highest quality costal freshwater and sphagnum (moss) bog systems in Washington.  The 1,215-acre preserve between Ocean Shores and Grays Harbor City provides protection for Makah copper butterflies, wetland ecosystems, extensive eelgrass beds, and a major harbor seal pupping area.  The area is made available to public and private universities and researchers.  Within the North Bay, the Goose Island Natural Area Preserve is a small sandy island supporting nesting seabirds. Similarly, the Sand Island Natural Area Preserve hosts seabirds including sandpipers, double-crested cormorants, and bald eagles.

North Channel

Like its North Bay cousins, the Whitcomb Flats Natural Area Preserve supports waterfowl, including nesting sites for Caspian terns, a bird susceptible to disturbances and quick to abandon its colonies.

South Bay Preserves

Farther south, at the bottom of the bay, the 41-acre Elk River area has the largest, highest quality estuarine system remaining in Washington or Oregon. With diverse bird habitats from tide flats to fresh water wetlands, it is critical as a fall migration point for waterfowl, as well as a wintering area for peregrine falcons. The Elk River area also has herring spawning areas and a saltmarsh, which makes good habitat for sweetgrass and cattail stems that the Quinault Indian Nation uses for traditional weaving. The South Bay also includes Bottle Beach State Park, a 75-acre park known for its ecologically rich open tide flats. Up to 20 percent of the migrating birds in Grays Harbor use this park. Birders have noted more than 130 bird species at Bottle Beach, and the Audubon Society has designated it as a Significant Bird Area. An estimated 114,592 people visited the park in 2013.

Johns River State Wildlife Area

The salt marsh habitat in this wildlife area is home to a range of species. The streams support salmon, trout, and whitefish, while visitors take advantage of hiking and wildlife watching opportunities that include chances to see great blue herons, hummingbirds, warblers, elk, bears, and bobcats. The 1,500 protected acres extend from the shores of the south end of the Harbor to the mouth of Johns River.

Chehalis River Surge Plain Natural Area Preserve

With the largest and best quality tidal surge plain wetland in the state, this preserve supports stands of Sitka spruce and western red cedar that shelter osprey, young salmon, and Olympic mudminnows.  The 3,018-acre site is located east of Aberdeen at the lower end of the Chehalis River.  A three-and-a-half-mile trail with interpretive signs provides ready access to visitors and local students.

Ocean City State Park

This year-round, 170-acre camping park features an ocean beach, dunes, and thickets of shore pine. An estimated 479,807 people visited here in 2013 to enjoy clamming, diving, fishing, migratory bird watching, and camping. Just south of town, the city of Ocean Shores runs on tourism. A small seaside community of just over 5,569, Ocean Shores is a popular family vacation spot. More than 4 million visitors travel there annually, including convention-goers who each spend locally an estimated average of $300 per day.  The town boasts more than 6 miles of flat and easily accessible beaches.

Westhaven and Westport Light house State Parks

Boasting beach access to both the Pacific Ocean and Half Moon Bay, Westhaven is a popular spot for surfing, fishing, and hanging out on the South Jetty. A boardwalk connects it to a second state park, this one named for its historic lighthouse on the Pacific Ocean. Each park hosted well over 300,000 visitors in 2013. Nearby, the town of Westport harbors a commercial fishing fleet alongside recreational charter vessels in the largest marina on the outer coast of the US Pacific Northwest. Visitors catch boat to see whales, catch fish, or simply enjoy the ride.

Twin Harbors and Grayland Beach State Parks

Just a few miles south of Westport, Twin Harbors and Grayland Beach State Parks offer hundreds of acres of camping, kite flying, surfing, beachcombing, and sand dune recreation. According to the most recent tally, each park sees nearly half a million visitors annually.

John Abbotts contributed research to this article.