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Catching the Returning Tide in Puget Sound

Videographers called on LightHawk to bring images of the Nisqually River Delta to their production documenting the "before", shown here, and the after-the-dikes-are-breeched states of the estuary. Many of the delta's sloughs are dry and muddy as tidal flows do not reach them. credit: Ben Nieves/NarrativeLab Communications/LightHawk


More than 100 years ago, the tides were held back in the southern end of Puget Sound and wetlands became farmland. Five miles of man-made dikes stopped saltwater from mingling with fresh in the Nisqually Delta so that the land could be cultivated. Recently, these human barriers were removed and the area returned to a more natural state to bear different fruit. With the help of LightHawk volunteer pilots Eric Fogelin and Hunter Handsfield, videographers were able to put this dramatic returning of the tide into focus.

A Hundred Year Victory
In October 2009, for the first time in a century, Puget Sound saltwater flowed into the freshwaters of the Nisqually River Delta which is fed by the glacial flanks of Washington State’s iconic Mt. Rainier. After years of project planning and feasibility studies, it took just months to remove the dikes that had been constructed to reclaim land for farming. Places where rivers flow into saltwater are valued as some of the richest biological habitats on Earth, providing rich nourishment and safe haven to hundreds of species of invertebrates, birds and fish. By flooding the Nisqually Delta after 100 years, scientists predict that a vibrant estuary ecosystem will be restored and survival of the river’s chinook salmon, a federally endangered species, will double.

After the five miles of man-made dikes were removed, one horizontal slice at a time, tidal flows soak the parched ground. credit: Ben Nieves/NarrativeLab Communications/LightHawk

The Nisqually Delta Restoration Project is the single largest ongoing estuary restoration project in the Pacific Northwest, and combined with recent smaller restorations conducted by the Nisqually Tribe, the project will result in the nearly total re-establishment of a very large estuarine ecosystem. To document this monumental project, project partner Ducks Unlimited turned to Portland-based NarrativeLab Communications. Producer Jeff Gersh knew that to illuminate the scope of the wetlands restoration he would need bird’s eye views on the project both before and after the tides returned. So in the spring of 2009, Gersh turned to LightHawk.

Assembling the “before” flight over the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge (NWR) took a fair amount of planning and coordination on the part of LightHawk Program Specialist Lee Pagni. Pagni, who was filling in for Pacific Program Manager Christine Steele while she was on maternity leave, had a unique set of flight restrictions to consider since the Refuge is located near Ft. Lewis military base, and has its own restrictions on overflights to protect sensitive wildlife species. Pagni worked closely with LightHawk volunteer pilot Eric Fogelin and Refuge Manager Jean Takekawa, who was able to temporarily reduce the NWR’s altitude restrictions for the flight so that the photographer would be able to get the footage needed.

A Google Earth flyover shows the challenging flying undertaken by volunteer pilot Eric Fogelin while operating near Ft. Lewis military airspace that could go "live" at any minute.

The Pilots
An aerial photographer’s dream pilot, Fogelin also donated the first mission. To say Fogelin has experience flying photographers and filmmakers in his Cessna 182 would be an understatement. When not flying for LightHawk, Fogelin is pilot in command for his wife, accomplished aerial and underwater photographer Veronica von Allworden. Fogelin was able to deftly maneuver his aircraft to ensure that the videographer was able to get the footage he needed. And, as it turned out, the flight occurred in the evening, when operations at Ft. Lewis were quiet.

NarrativeLab called on LightHawk once again for a follow-up flight in October to document the return of tidal Puget Sound water, after a more than a hundred-year-absence, as it moved into several of the sloughs that make up the river delta. Seattle-based volunteer Hunter Handsfield donated this flight in his Cessna 182 once the dikes had been partially breached. In addition to volunteering for LightHawk, Dr. Handsfield is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington and is currently a senior research leader at the Battelle Centers for Public Health Research, where he focuses on domestic and international HIV prevention research especially HIV/STD prevention in Zimbabwe. A long-time trailblazer in STD research, he was recently honored with the nation's highest honor in this field.

Retaining dikes, seen here as a sand-colored strip dividing Puget Sound from the Delta, kept tidal waters from entering the Nisqually River Delta so the area could be used as farmland. In the Fall of 2009, they were intentionally breeched so that the tides could return to replenish the estuarine plain.  credit: Ben Nieves/NarrativeLab Communications/LightHawk

Capturing the Rebirth of a Wetland 
By November 2009, the waters were completely married once again, providing a safe haven for juvenile fish and a rich buffet for the many creatures who visit the estuary. And just as the farmland of the delta bore fruit, fisheries scientists predict the Nisqually estuary restoration will double survival of the river’s chinook salmon population, which landed on the federal endangered species list as a threatened species in 1999.

“The [aerial footage] delivers a comprehensive perspective of the otherwise difficult-to-grasp scale of the delta restoration, before and after. Our story would not work without the aerials made possible by LightHawk's generosity and expertise.” – Jeff Gersh – NarrativeLab Producer

While many conservation victories slip through the cracks of the 24-hour news cycle, LightHawk's contribution helped ensure the historic moment when the quiet waters of Puget Sound joined the Nisqually River once again will be preserved for future generations. The film, featuring aerial imagery gained on LightHawk missions, will help educate the public and inspire funders and policy-makers to support additional restoration efforts in the Pacific Northwest. The film will also educate visitors to the NWR for many years about the restoration project, the significance of the estuary and, because of the aerial perspective provided by LightHawk, it will show how a parched land left dry for more than 100 years was once again satiated by the tides of Puget Sound.