The South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
From the first step to the last, the Slough is different. A public, yet personal place unique in Coos County. Unique in the sense that nowhere else in the county can the general public experience such a wealth of information about the natural world, like the ecological connections between estuaries, salt marshes, tidal flats, and rivers while participating in nationwide research simply by going for a walk. The South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is so much more than just an interconnected series of hiking trails and kayak “water trails.” The Slough is an outdoor university, a conglomeration of educational seminars, research opportunities, bird watching, guided tours, children’s programs, books, games and interactivity. Perhaps, most of all, the Slough is a place to learn and appreciate nature. For some, the Slough can be a place to learn “how” to appreciate nature.
In 1975, largely due to the efforts of one man, the South Slough became the first nationally recognized Estuarine Research Reserve. Dr. Edward T. LaRoe was instrumental in preserving the nearly twenty square miles of tidal flats, salt marsh, eel grass meadow, fresh water wetlands, open bay, and coastal coniferous forest that make up the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Since that time, twenty other estuarine research reserves have been established around the country and together have become the National Estuarine Research Reserve System or, (NERRS).
The scope of the NERRS has broadened beyond the initial ideals of conservation and become a nationwide network of state and federal protected areas designated and supported by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor and identify changes in the biological diversity of estuaries over time. The goal of the NERRS program is, “Develop a comprehensive monitoring program to identify and track long-term changes in the status, integrity and biological diversity of estuaries.”
On the broader scale, the monitoring of the estuarine system simply means looking for changes in the things already known to be true for all estuaries in general, like the filtering and purification of water. What NERRS does, is shares specific information from individual sites with the other sites in the system to compare date and create a comprehensive picture of what happens when changes occur anywhere in the watershed, from the very specific to most general.
For example, changes in population of plant and animal communities can be detected with data from “long-term ecological surveillance and monitoring.” All NERRS sites, including the South Slough, are monitored for three different aspects or “stages.” Stage one is water quality and storm impacts. Stage two is biological communities and their habitats and stage three is watershed land-use changes. More specifically, the four National Estuarine Research Reserves here on the West Coast focus on monitoring urban and agricultural pollution impacts and wetland restoration.
The West Coast NERRS monitor agricultural pollution in an attempt to determine how excess fertilizer, or nitrogen run-off, effects the amount of oxygen in the water and the impact on aquatic plants and animals. They are also documenting how restored wetlands have the capacity to improve the water quality in estuarine environments. The third and forth monitoring aspects are somewhat related and they focus mainly on which is the best sampling technique for determining pollution’s environmental impacts, such as, the impacts of sewage on water quality.
The four NERRS sites on the west coast are, Padilla Bay in Washington, South Slough here in Oregon, Elkhorn Slough in California, and Tijuana River to the Mexico Boarder. Two other NERRS sites are proposed. One in San Francisco Bay and the other is Kachemak Bay in Alaska. Monitoring data and information for each Reserve are available from the NERRS Central Data Management Office via the Internet at (http://inlet.geol.sc.edu/cdmohome.html)
According to South Slough Adventures: Life on a Southern Oregon Estuary second edition, “Sough Slough Reserve is administered by the Oregon State Land Board. The Board is composed of three state officials and an eight member Management Commission. The Commission is designated by statute and appointed by the Governor of Oregon.”
The Friends of the South Slough Reserve was formed in 1988 as a volunteer non-profit organization to raise private funds for educational and interpretive services available to the general public. According to the “Friends”, thousands of students visit the Slough each year to participate in structured programs, some lasting five hours or more, including state college educational programs. The programs are developed with statewide science education guidelines and the recommendations of teachers. The Friends also manage the bookstore at the Interpretive Center, which overlooks the Slough from a vantage of 300 feet above sea level. The Interpretive Center has a welcoming feel, a large centrally located fireplace as the focal point entering the front doors through the alcove. There are large chairs and books. It’s kind of like what I would imagine any Naturalist’s dream house to be like. The center offers visitors a field guide alcove, interpretive exhibits including a stuffed Bard Owl and Pelican gliding down from a skylight near the “native rock” fireplace, and lecture programs. The Friends are always looking for memberships, which, by the way, are tax deductable. Members of the Friends organization receive 15% off items purchased in the bookstore, reduced fees at events, as well as voting privileges. Members also receive a newsletter. A lifetime membership costs $250. Annual memberships for students are five dollars, individual memberships are $20, seniors are $15 and families are $30. One doesn’t have to be a Friend of the Slough, however, or have any sort of membership to enjoy the South Slough, or the Interpretive Center and what they have to offer.
It is from the Interpretive Center that the Slough begins to open up. From the Interpretive Center and the main parking lot the “Ten Minute Trail” makes a quarter mile loop past an outdoor amphitheater where lectures are sometimes given on favorable evenings and is a good warm up for the rest of the hiking trails the Slough as to offer. The Hidden Creek Watershed travels down the hill and follows the creek almost to the waters of the Slough itself. A Wetland Boardwalk travels over the skunk cabbage marsh and ell grass meadows for nearly half a mile. The Wetland Boardwalk trails ends at the Observation deck, which to the first time visitor feels like finding some forgotten, epic, tree house from Peter Pan. From there the Tunnel Trail travels along the estuary and is enclosed in the trees. Big Cedar Trail is a spur trail leading away from the Observation Deck and Salt Marsh and back to the lower parking lot at Limited Access Road. The Tunnel Trail leads to another lookout and Rhodes Dike. As part of the Winchester Tidelands Restoration Project, a tidal gate was removed and Rhodes Dike was dynamited to create a tidal creak and an experimental marsh. The Tunnel Trail crosses the Timber Trail at the Lookout. This is a popular bird watching spot. Terns, Egrets, and Herons are often spotted from the From there the Timber Trail continues out to a finger of land where the open bay of the South Slough meets the mouth of the channel to Rhodes’ Marsh. The end of the finger can sneak up on you, so beware if you travel with small children who like to run ahead. Toward the end of the Timber Trail are the Sloughside Pilings, remnants from the logging era when timber was floated through the slough and tied to the various and many pilings throughout the Coos Bay estuary system to await pick-up for processing at the mill. From Rhodes Dike, a bridge now crosses Rhodes Marsh and re-enters the forest and begins the North Creek Trail. Dogs are not allowed on this trail to allow for wildlife observation. The most direct route back to the lower parking lot is the Timber Trail. About half way up the Limited Access Road there is a spur on the right side. This trail winds its way back up the hill, letting out on the Ten Minute Trail at the Interpretive Center.
From the Interpretive Center:
- Ten Minute Loop Trail – (0.2 miles)
- North Creek Trail – (2.5 miles)
- Middle Creek Trail – (0.5 miles)
- Hidden Creek Trail – (1.2 miles)
- Big Cedar Trail – (0.3 miles)
- Railroad Trail – (0.6 miles)
- Tunnel Trail – (0.6 miles)
A lesser-known portion of the Slough is the South Reserve Trails, which are not connected to the main Interpretive Center Trails system. These trails have a separate access road about a half-mile south of the main entrance to the Slough on Seven Devils. The Tails are accessed by Hinch Road.
South Slough Reserve Trails
- Wasson Creek and Fredrickson House trails – (1.5 miles) Both trails are looped and travel along marsh and through the forest. Wasson Creek trail is regularly flooded and often closed as a full loop.
The Interpretive Center is open year round from 10 am to 4:30 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Trails are open every day from sunrise to sunset.