OCTOBER 1997

 

OCTOBER 1997 FULL ISSUE

CHASING SPARTINA

By ARI LEVAUX

For the past several years. Edward Cohen has been adding layers of marsh grass to a growing pile in his garden in Willapa Bay in Southwest Washington. Over time, it has decomposed, turning the sandy topsoil into fertile earth. He grows an assortment of flowers and vegetables, though he is most interested in his garlic and potato crops, which do very well in his garden. "Both of these crops respond favorably to mulching," he explained. "The beauty of this situation is that the mulch is itself the medium. Think about that."

One man's medium mulch is another's super villain. Cohen's marsh grass is otherwise known as spartina, a sworn enemy of many residents, politicians, scientists, and businessmen in this rain drenched southwest corner of Washington. Its eradication is at the center of a raging debate that means many things to many people. Spartina was inadvertently introduced to Willapa Bay over 100 years ago: as packing material for a shipment of Ease Coast oysters that were imported in hopes that they could he cultivated in Willapa Bay. By this time. the native oysters were almost depleted from overharvest, too many having slid down the throats of gold miners in San Francisco. The new oysters did not cake in the bay, hut the spartina did, though virtually unnoticed for many decades. Then in the·1970's. spartina lept from obscurity and onto center stage as it began a growth spurt that continues to this day. No one knows where it might end, how it might alter the character of the bay, or how far it might spread to other bays and in Inlets along the Pacific.

Nor does anyone exactly know how to get rid of it. Or should we? Everyone here seems to have an opinion. The fierce debate has turned neighbors against each other and provided common ground for others that do not usually find much agreement.

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Paul Koberstein