GALLIPOLIS — The Gallipolis Island may soon be under new ownership as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is attempting to acquire the island and restore this rapidly deteriorating refuge for fish and various wildlife.
Approximately two years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approached the city of Gallipolis, the owners of a portion of the island, but were unsuccessful because a portion of the island is under private ownership and negotiations to purchase this portion of the island failed.
The island, located just offshore near the upper portion of First Avenue in Gallipolis, is actually located in Mason County, W.Va., but is partially owned by the city of Gallipolis and has been deemed “Gallipolis Island.” Reportedly, this refuge for fish and other river creatures was once a sprawling 88 acres and is now well below five acres.
Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service once again approached the Gallipolis City Commission to discuss acquiring the city’s portion of the island as the private owner now would like to donate his portion of the island to help maintain this habitat for local wildlife.
Sara Siekierski, deputy refuse manager at the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reported that her office manages 22 islands that stretch from Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh to Kentucky and would like to acquire Gallipolis Island.
“I think as recently as 2011 or 2012, we were trying to work a situation out, and you guys have been very supportive as far as I’m aware,” Siekierski said. “For other obstacles, we were unable to move forward on that. We cannot — our solicitor in our realty office — will not allow us to acquire partial interest in the property, and there’s another land owner that is involved in the island, and so we were kind of dead in the water.”
However, Siekierski reported that recently Ashton Berdine with the West Virginia Land Trust — a non-profit that is dedicated to protecting West Virginia’s natural lands and scenic areas — again approached this private owner and he has agreed to donate his portion of the island for conservation purposes.
“We’re a private non-profit conversational organization that has been around 20 years, and our mission is to protect and conserve properties, especially those that are a critical habitat to wildlife, but also recreational access for the public and sometimes cultural sites as well,” Berdine reported, while stating that his agency is interested in aiding the Fish and Wildlife Service in funding conservation of the island.
Berdine further stated that the Gallipolis Island not only represents a scenic significance along the Ohio River, but also, more importantly, a habitat for various local wildlife.
“Gallipolis Island is important especially for fish habitat, it’s from, what I understand, the shallows of the island [that are important]. The Fish and Wildlife Service has also indicated that it is important for mussels which, as a group, are a fairly threatened species. So these shallows areas around the island are especially important and I just learned that the downriver side is an important area, especially in the winter when the water is cold and the fish are cold, they can gather there to kind of stay out of the currents,” Berdine said. “So, islands, in general, are important for that reason.”
Sierkierski and Berdine further proposed to the city that it is their interest to restore the island, but most importantly, to help to prevent it from eroding even further.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service desires to do restoration, particularly to keep the island from continuing to erode, and that comes at a pretty great cost,” Berdine said as he explained his agency’s role in acquiring the property. “There are these structures called ‘zipper dikes’ which are piles of rock every so many feet around the island that stop the wave action from the barges and allow for sediment to fill back in.”
Siekierski reported that these “zipper dikes” typically need to be built in four- to six-feet of water and on an underwater land “bench” large enough to place the rocks.
She further explained that she was unsure whether these special dikes would be constructed around the entire circumference of the island or just on the far side — an answer that she would only know once the area has been explored.
“I can’t say for sure because I have no idea what the underwater habitat looks like now and how quickly it drops off, but knowing that the island was significantly larger, traditionally we’ve been doing this projects in partnership with the Corps of Engineers on the navigation side, and not typically on the back channel side,” she said. “Typically, there is an usually a greater need on the channel side from wave action.
“This is just something that we would look at and evaluate that island to see if it would be a place where we could do that kind of restoration,” Siekierski stated.
Siekierski further stated that if her agency acquires the island, the underwater acreage associated with the island would also be protected from any future dredging — although such a practice is very unlikely — along with the part of the island that is above land.
“The terrestrial aspect is important for migratory birds. These islands are disappearing, they are not rebuilding. They are not like the barrier islands that have a source of deposition, we see very little deposition in our refuge island — our river islands. So, we’re concerned that once they are gone, they are gone,” Siekierski said.
Following a lengthy discussion, the City Commission moved to allow the City Solicitor to complete legislation that will allow the city to donate their interest in the island to the West Virginia Land Trust with the caveat that the island will be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within seven years after the land trust helps to secure funding for the proposed restoration of the remaining portion of the island.
Legislation in regard to the island is expected to be presented to the Gallipolis City Commission during one of their upcoming meetings.