US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

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Genesis of the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
Managing South Slough
The Future of a Dynamic Sanctuary

 Slide Show

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 nation's 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 NOAA's Office of Coastal Zone Management, also staunchly supported protection for South Slough (Bone, 1995).


South Slough arial photo 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, 1995).

However, local pro-sanctuary sentiment was strong, and proponents moved forward. When Oregon's 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 Oregon's 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, 1995).

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, 1995).

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 acres―about 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 governor's 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, 1995).


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, 1991)

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, 1995).

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 Slough's first manager, prepared the first official management plan for the reserve in 1984, which followed similar management strategies outlined in the site's 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 reserve's 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 is―the only commercial activity permitted within the reserve (SSNESMP, 1984; Graybill, 2001).

The management plan was revised and updated in 1994. The goals described reflected the ongoing refinement of the reserve's 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 for visitors.

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, 2000).

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, 2001).

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, 2001).

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, 2001).

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. 69 pp.

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.