South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
Genesis of the South Slough
National Estuarine Research Reserve
Managing South Slough
The Future of a Dynamic Sanctuary
In the early 1970s, the notion
of environmental stewardship was taking hold. A wave of environmental
legislation succeeded the first Earth Day in 1970. All sectors
of the population, including citizens, businesses, interest
groups and public officials, grappled with how to navigate
and implement the new laws and programs. Those responsible
for protecting the nations coastal areas were especially
concerned about a burgeoning coastal population threatening
to overwhelm the beaches, wetlands, dunes and estuarine habitats.
The South Slough arm of Coos Bay, Ore., in the southwest section
of the state, was no exception.
A typically rich estuarine environment, South Slough is one
of seven inlets that combine to form the Coos Bay estuary.
It encompasses diverse habitats that include coniferous upland
forests and shrubland, freshwater and saltwater tidal wetlands,
tidal mud flats, eelgrass meadows and open water. It is home
to many important species including bald eagles, great blue
herons, elk, dungeness crab, ghost shrimp and surfperch. As
a marine protected area, the upper reaches of South Slough's
tidal creeks and channels are spawning and nursery grounds
for marine fishes. South Slough is, therefore, an important
link to the marine environment (Bottom,
no date). Many conservation-minded individuals, policymakers
and organizations would collaborate to protect this area of
diverse habitats and preserve it as an estuarine laboratory.
Genesis of the South Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve
Citizens of Charleston, Ore., spearheaded efforts to recognize
the special qualities of the South Slough inlet in 1971,when
the Barview/Charleston Citizens Committee proposed a quarter-mile
protective buffer strip around the shoreline of the estuary,
which was approved by the public and the Coos County Commissioners.
The Coos County Planning Commission refused to support a proposed
subdivision in the area, and a group of citizens even enlisted
the assistance of the Nature Conservancy to help protect South
Slough. Eventually, local U.S. Congressman John Dellenback,
joined the effort to make South Slough a protected area under
the newly enacted Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. Dr.
Ted LaRoe, the first chief scientist at NOAAs Office
of Coastal Zone Management, also staunchly supported protection
for South Slough (Bone, 1995).
||South Slough encompasses
4,700 acres 600 acres of which is tidal marshes,
mudflats and open water channels. Connecting to the ocean
through the Coos estuary mouth, near Charleston, Ore.,
South Slough provides an outstanding natural laboratory.
(Source: South Slough National Estuarine Reserve)
Not everyone supported the protection of the
area, however. The timber industry, fearing loss of revenue,
opposed the move at first, and some private property owners
were reluctant to give up their land. In addition, the Coos-Curry
Council of Governments expressed concern that the land proposed
for the sanctuary would be acquired at less than fair-market
value, and Coos County anticipated the loss of tax revenue
if housing, timber harvest, high-density recreation activities
and mineral extraction operations were prohibited (Bone,
However, local pro-sanctuary sentiment was strong, and proponents
moved forward. When Oregons Coastal Zone Management
Program began accepting applications for sanctuary designation
in April 1974, South Slough was one of twelve sites nationwide
considered for protection. On June 27, 1974, NOAA chose Oregons
proposal for South Slough as the first estuarine sanctuary,
in part because it enjoyed so much outspoken community support.
The agency awarded Oregon a $400,000 grant to acquire and
manage the South Slough National Estuarine Sanctuary (renamed
the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1985).
Oregon contributed matching funds, and substantial private
gifts also contributed to land acquisition (Bone,
Though the estuary was not considered pristine at the time
of designation, and several sections of its watershed had
been logged, it was less impacted by development than other
estuaries in the nation and was considered relatively healthy.
Moreover, many proponents believed the area, if protected,
would revert to a more pristine state within 200 years. The
reserve also was ideally situated near several academic institutions
and laboratories, which would facilitate ecological research
within the reserve and surrounding areas (Bone,
||The biological richness
of the estuary provides abundant educational opportunities.
Here, an instructor holds several crustaceans and molluscs
found in mudflats.
Eventually, Georgia Pacific timber company, the largest landowner
in the proposed reserve, agreed to sell and donate a sizable
portion of its holdings, and most landowners agreed to sell
their land. The last remaining property owner within the original
boundaries of the reserve sold his land in 1997. Originally,
the proposed reserve was to encompass only 1,700 acres, but
additional funds allowed the state to acquire 4,770 acresabout
one-quarter of the South Slough watershed. (Bone,
1995). The reserve includes about 800 acres of water and
tidally influenced habitat, 115 acres of riparian habitat
and 3,850 acres of upland forest.
In 1974, the state established the South Slough Estuarine
Sanctuary Management Policy Committee, which was composed
of representatives from state agencies, the governors
office and the local citizenry. The Division of State Lands
was assigned responsibility for administering the reserve
program, under the guidance of the South Slough Technical
Management Team, which consisted of representatives from agencies
around the state. In 1976, the Technical Management Team created
guidelines for maintaining the reserve, conducting research
within the reserve, developing baseline data, monitoring changes
and providing public education programs (Bone,
Managing South Slough
Although South Slough was designated a reserve in 1974, the
state legislature did not vest the Division of State Lands
with the official authority to acquire land until 1977. In
the interim, the Nature Conservancy started the acquisition
process by purchasing land from local owners (Graybill,
2001). In the 1977 statute, the state legislature also
recognized that estuarine waters comprised only a small fraction
of the designated reserve. Therefore, it allowed the state
to acquire certain surrounding property to protect the
estuary from uses and activities both within and beyond its
boundaries, which may alter or affect the ecosystem and its
natural dynamic processes (SSNESMP,
1984). The statute also established the South Slough Estuarine
Sanctuary Management Commission, appointed by the governor,
to conduct the day-to-day operation and management of the
reserve with the administrative support of the Division of
State Lands (Graybill, 2001).
||Shiner perch, a member
of the surfperch family, is the most abundant fish species
in South Slough during spring and summer (Bottom,
no date). This species bears its young alive in shallow
estuarine waters during the spring. In the fall and winter
it moves offshore into marine waters. (Emmett,
While considering a management plan for the
reserve, the state grappled with several challenging aspects.
Stewardship issues sometimes conflicted with research and
educational objectives. For instance, some landowners remained
on the reserve, complicating management issues. Moreover,
the state did not have enough funds to purchase the entire
19,295-acre watershed, thus rendering the reserve vulnerable
to threats from the unprotected areas (Bone,
In addition, the values embodied by the reserve, such as correcting
past human-caused damage, restoring tidal flooding, and providing
research, education and recreation opportunities, had the
potential to conflict with the activities occurring outside
reserve boundaries, such as logging, agriculture and urban
development. The reserve appeared under constant threat.
Delane Munson, South Sloughs first manager, prepared
the first official management plan for the reserve in 1984,
which followed similar management strategies outlined in the
sites original environmental impact statement (Graybill,
2001). The 1984 plan specified flexible objectives and
goals for the management of the reserve, including its education
and research programs. Goals for the education program included
compiling and maintaining a database of information about
the ecosystem, developing educational materials, promoting
opportunities for field study within the reserve and providing
public education programs. Initial goals for the research
program included summarizing baseline information to describe
the reserves existing environment, conducting ongoing
monitoring projects, and initiating and supporting ongoing
research (SSNESMP, 1984).
To ensure public recreational use and reserve stewardship,
the 1984 plan specified permitted, restricted and prohibited
activities within reserve boundaries, all of which remain
largely unchanged today. Permitted activities include canoeing,
rowboating, hiking, recreational fishing and wildlife observation.
Twenty-one restricted activities are listed, including digging
for artifacts, hunting, camping, horseback riding and berry
picking, all of which require permission. Nine activities,
such as commercial bait gathering, discharge of chemicals
or other pollutants, road-building, dredging or filling, and
commercial timber harvest are prohibited. Commercial oystering
was and still isthe only commercial activity permitted
within the reserve (SSNESMP, 1984;
The management plan was revised and updated in 1994. The goals
described reflected the ongoing refinement of the reserves
management objectives. For instance, stewardship goals included
re-establishing natural habitats and processes, acquiring
more land, and developing a watershed-wide stewardship program
with other landowners, managers and users of the Coos estuary
watershed (Donnelly, 1994). Currently,
a project is underway to restore a half-mile-long stream channel
to more closely approximate natural conditions. In addition,
restoration of tidal wetlands in the reserve continues. Monitoring
projects track topographical and morphological changes, and
biological recovery processes in wetland areas where artificial
dikes had previously restricted tidal exchange of the estuary's
waters (SSNERR Annual Report, 2000).
||A number of recreational
activites are permitted in the reserve. South Slough staff
often lead recreational and educational canoeing expeditions
Research goals included assisting policymakers
with ecological issues that are significant to the region,
developing a coordinated research agenda with neighboring
watershed managers, and maintaining an up-to-date database
of biological and physical aspects of the reserve (Donnelly,
1994). Specific research projects also are underway to
study juvenile salmon growth and movements, eelgrass habitat
changes, watershed function and health, and ocean-estuary
interactions (SSNERR Annual Report,
The plan also outlined efforts to better coordinate volunteer
involvement, which continues to grow. A public involvement
coordinator was hired in September 2001 to facilitate the
coordination. In keeping with the 1994 plan, the reserve has
broadened its education programs and coordinated its educational
materials with Oregon school curriculum. It currently is working
with the local school district to implement a total
immersion approach to teaching marine science. Teacher
workshops, and numerous educational and awareness programs
also are stressed (SSNERR Annual
Report, 2000). In addition, the reserve has expanded its
existing interpretive center to include more exhibit space,
additional interpretive activities, offices and an auditorium.
A new research laboratory on the campus of nearby University
of Oregon recently was completed as well (Graybill,
Finally, plans are underway to develop a regional framework
of coastal environmental information. The reserve has collaborated
with various regional public agencies, nongovernmental organizations
and for-profit companies to form the Coastal Environments
Learning Network (CELN) and to develop a coordinated view
of and approach to the coastal environment. Though still in
its early stages, CELN plans to build a headquarters facility
and use the reserve as a satellite site for carrying out its
educational mission (Graybill, 2001).
The Future of a Dynamic Reserve
Recently, plans have been underway to develop a cooperative
watershed plan for the reserve that would incorporate representative
habitats found within the entire Coos Estuary watershed. Because
South Slough was designated before the concept of habitat
representation was articulated, it does not include several
significant estuarine habitats, such as coastal cliffs, coastal
shrubland, coastal swamps, coastal grassland and intertidal
beaches. In the future, the reseve may be reconfigured to
include some of these habitats (Graybill,
If the site is reconfigured, managers may have to determine
how to incorporate the dense human habitats that are thickly
interwoven with coastal and estuarine systems. Future reserve
management may have to determine what role humans will play
in the design of protected areas (Graybill,
||The significant amount
of land area in the South Slough reserve relative to tidal
waters is in marked contrast to many marine protected
areas such as marine sanctuaries and fishery management
areas that are water only. Nevertheless, the protected
land area serves a vital role in maintaining water quality
in the headwaters of the estuary.
Bone, I. M. 1995. The First National
Estuarine Sanctuary. South Slough Adventure: Life on
a Southern Oregon Estuary. Caldora, M. (ed.) Coos Bay, Ore.:
Friends of South Slough. pp. 231-239.
Bottom, D.L., K.K. Jones, and J.D. Rodgers.
No date. Fish community structure, standing crop, and production
in upper South Slough (Coos Bay, Oregon). South Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve. Technical Report No. SOS 1-88.
Donnelly, A. W. and
South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. 1994. South
Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve Management Plan.
South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, Charleston,
Oregon and U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA, Silver Spring,
Maryland. 194 pp. + appendices.
Emmett, R.L., S.L. Stone, S.A. Hinton,
and M.E. Monaco. 1991. Distribution and abundance of fishes
and invertebrates in west coast estuaries, Volume II: Species
life history summaries. ELMR Rep. No. 8. Rockville, MD: NOAA/NOS
Strategic Environmental Assessments Division. 329 pp.
Graybill, M., Manager, South Slough
National Estuarine Research Reserve. Personal Communication.
May 12, 2001, September 2001.
South Slough National Estuarine
Research Reserve (SSNERR) Annual Report. 2000.
South Slough National Estuarine Sanctuary
Management Plan (SSNESMP). 1984. South Slough National Estuarine
Sanctuary, Fishman Environmental Services, and the Oregon
Division of State Lands. 75 pp. + appendices.