Even More Saltese?

August 3, 2022

Inland Northwest Land Conservancy has finalized an agreement with the Naccarato family that will expand the protected wetland area at the Saltese Flats, west of Liberty Lake in Spokane Valley. The agreement, known as a conservation easement, will protect and preserve 53 acres of land, and ensure that restoration efforts will continue, keeping Spokane’s watershed healthy, and protecting homes for birds and other wildlife in our region.

The purpose of agreements like this, and many others that Inland Northwest Land Conservancy has done, isn’t to make private land public. Instead, they place restrictions on how the land can be used and provide a plan for ensuring that it either becomes or remains a healthy part of the ecosystem. In most cases, that means prohibiting development on the land, and landowners and partners like the Conservancy will work together to protect the property.

A view of the wetlands from one of the Saltese Uplands trails.

In Naccarato’s case, the importance of the land extends beyond its boundary. It is right next to a large-scale wetland restoration project by Spokane County. Anyone who has hiked in the Saltese Uplands (one of the most popular trail systems in the county) is familiar with the wetlands, even if they’ve never gone down to the flats for birdwatching or a stroll on its gravel path. It makes up much of the panoramic vista that makes the climb up steep hills from the Henry Road trailhead so rewarding. From some vantage points, hikers may even catch a glimpse of the Naccarato land itself, though it’s not easy to distinguish from far away.

The land’s protection will also have significant if indirect, effects on recreation in the area. Your next hike there won’t involve the Naccarato land itself — the agreement doesn’t open it to the public, and it’s frequently underwater — but the property remaining undeveloped ensures that the landscape is a stunning view. And for birdwatchers? Waterfowl and dozens of other bird species will have even more territory to call their home, rivaling even Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge for quality and quantity of avian life.

Residents of the Saltese Flats Wetland

The Saltese area hasn’t always been such a welcoming habitat. According to Spokane County water reclamation engineer Ben Brattebo, the area now known as Saltese flats was once a lake. Around the turn of the 20th century, however, farmers started draining the land so they could use it to grow hay and oats. Occasionally, the farmland would flood, and once again become a fertile habitat for waterfowl, according to Chris Bonsignore, manager of conservation programs at Ducks Unlimited. But for the better part of a century, the land in and around the Saltese Flats was dry and grassy.

Looking at it now, it would be hard to imagine the agricultural setting, thanks to the conservation efforts from several groups over the past few decades. Spokane County bought several parcels of land, securing over 500 acres. The County’s teams have been restoring the land to a more natural wetland state while engineering it to make sure it remains healthy. Ducks Unlimited has helped with those restoration efforts, which include building culverts, berms, and other “water control structures” as Brattebo calls them. The nonprofit also helped secure grant funding for much of the work, according to Rose Richardson, INLC’s Stewardship Director.

At the same time, the Conservancy has been working with private landowners to develop agreements that protect their land, and add to the target area for restoration efforts. Richardson called the project “a case study of the impact strong partnerships and coordinated efforts can have.”

Some effects of the restoration work are obvious. Several species of birds that haven’t been in the area for decades returned this spring, according to Richardson. The county and Ducks Unlimited have planted native grasses, trees, shrubs, and other plants to provide a habitat for the birds, animals, and the bugs that feed them.

These smaller projects add up to a big change that can be seen from the top of the Saltese Uplands. Throughout winter and spring, the land once again collects large pools of water, that may even last into hot, dry summers. While this protected land isn’t always flooded, according to Bonsignore, the soil there will be saturated throughout most of the spring.

Sunset from the Naccarato property

While the wetland flooding makes the area perfect for animals and birds to live in and travel through, there are less obvious benefits as well. According to Bonsignore, wetlands help trap pollutants and sediment from surface water runoff before it reaches local lakes and the aquifer, helping to improve water quality for the 600,000 people who rely on it. Brattebo shared that one reason the county first took interest in the flats was that it could work as a place to discharge reclaimed water.

In addition to acting as a filter, the wetlands also work as a sort of battery. While the water they store late into the summer often looks still, it moves underground towards local lakes, the aquifer, and even the Spokane River. In the dry season, where there is little rain or snowmelt, the water from the wetlands helps recharge the river and aquifer, ensuring that both keep flowing.

The wetland’s role in Spokane’s water system, as well as the natural beauty and habitat it provides, is why it is so important to protect and conserve — and why easements like the one at the Naccarato property are such an important tool for agencies like your Conservancy.

Restoration work is set to continue on the Naccarato land and the wetlands as a whole. There are other reasons the future is bright for the Saltese area. In April, the county broke ground on the Doris Morrison Learning Center, which will be located near the Saltese uplands and flats. The goal of the learning center is to teach the next generation about the wetlands.

Thanks to the efforts of the county, Ducks Unlimited, Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, and others, the center can educate the community about the wetland’s ecosystems and geology with an accessible, interactive four-season display right out the front door! Visitors will be able to see the outcome of conservation efforts like the protection of the Naccarato land and learn about all the work and partnerships it takes to protect and restore our precious natural spaces.

Author: Mitchell Clark, Conservancy Volunteer