Introduction to the Trail System
The basics of the trail system isn't too complicated at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. There are basically 4 miles (6.5 km) of trails open to the public on the main part of the refuge. Doing all of the major trails open to the public requires 5 miles (8 km) of walking. There are a few scattered appendages to this trail system that are short branches to the main trail system. There is also a remote trail that is only accessible from the city of DuPont and is completely inaccessible from the rest of the refuge.
The trail formation is a one mile loop formed by the Twin Barns Loop. This trail is entirely on boardwalk for its entire 1 mile (1.6 km) loop. Several sections of this trail are paralleled by gravel maintenance roads that may also be used as trails, though the views from them are very similar in most locations.
On the far north end of this loop, a gravel surface trail runs across the top of a dike that separates the fresh water ponds from the tidal salt water of Puget Sound. This gravel trail was the first portion of the new Nisqually Estuary Trail and provides views of seasonal fresh water marshes on one side (in the summer months they sometimes dry up partially or nearly completely) and on the other side tidal flats. The tidal water seldom comes directly up next to this trail, but it can get very close in spring runoff mixed with a very high tide. The further west you walk on this trail the closer the tidal flooding gets to the dike trail until at the end of the publicly accessible point the tidal area is at the base of the dike and it is sometimes possible to watch feeding shorebirds right there at the edge of the trail.
At the end of this trail there is a gate, beyond which visitors are not allowed to venture as it is part of the refuge where wildlife is protected from human disturbance.
Opened in early 2011, the new Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk is approximately 1 mile of boardwalk built above the tidal mudflats, allowing visitors to watch the tidal action of the water first hand. On the west side of the boardwalk there is McAllister Creek, and on the east side of the boardwalk there is the Nisqually River Delta, which is mudflat at low tide. At high tide the water completely covers most of this area, and the boardwalk has several feet of water under it. Sometimes it is possible to see seals as well as various diving birds from here, and crabs and other salt water creatures have started to make an appearance as well.
The boardwalk section and the dike trail section do not make a loop. Therefore, if you go all the way out to the end of the boardwalk you must make a 2.5 mile (4.2 km) one way trip. The boardwalk sections of the trail are essentially wheelchair accessible, but the 1 mile gravel section of dike trail that separates the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk from the Twin Barns Loop makes it difficult to get to that if using most types of mobility device.
Scattered appendages of this trail system go to several overlooks. These include the Nisqually River Overlook, the Twin Barns Observation Overlook and the Forest Overlook. These are only very short sections, and between them only add approximately 3/4 of a mile (1 km) to the length of the trail system.
- Hiking and Walking
Nisqually River Delta Restoration Project
While it isn't something that can really be listed as a "Thing to Do" here, it is a bit of vital information about what is going on at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and certainly it is one of the important "Things to See" while visiting here.
It is, however, a very subtle "Thing to See" so it is worth taking a bit of space to explain. Hundreds of pages could be written about this, and considering the number of government agencies involves (plus various non-profit groups and at least one First Nations tribe) hundreds of pages were most likely produced in the years BEFORE the restoration took place.
A quick summary of what happened:
Salmon have always been extremely important to the Nisqually tribe, and they found themselves owners of the land on the east side of the Nisqually River Delta. Like the land owned by the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge it had been walled off from the river and made into farmland. A pilot project was established on their land to help salmon recovery by turning this farm land back into tidal areas. While successful enough to prove the concept, the problem was this was a very small area.
Essentially part of the same tideflats as the Nisqually tribe, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just over the river was making its own plans to duplicate this effort, only on a much more massive scale. Before the 1850s, the land the refuge sits on was once all tidal flats - some 3,900 acres (1,600 ha) of it. This land was diked off from Puget Sound, drained, and turned into farmland starting in the 1890s and with the largest farm venture completing it around 1904. The refuge inherited this configuration when it obtained the land for this refuge in 1974.
In terms of using this land for habitat, the refuge first produced a series of freshwater marshes and other lands that were cheap and easy to produce to create wildlife habitat.
This didn't work well for a number of reasons. Among them included the creation of an extensive set of conditions that promoted invasive species, particularly reed canary grass. Another problem is that an important part of restoring life to Puget Sound involves salmon habitat and salmon need good tidewater areas that are a mixture of fresh water and salt water to perform their transition from a fresh water fish to an ocean fish. The narrowed and tightly controlled Nisqually River no longer offered them this type of ecosystem.
Over a long and drawn out period money sources from a number of different backers were obtained for an extensive restoration of the tideflats, while at the same time retaining a core set of forests and wetlands as fresh water habitat.
With finances in place, on May 4, 2009, the 5.5 mile Brown Farm Dike Trail closed to allow for removal of the dikes on which the trail was routed and restoration of the natural water processes within the borders of the refuge. By November of 2009, huge expanses of the dikes had been removed, and a portion of the new Niqually Estuary Trail was opened to the public. An entire brochure is available at the refuge with maps that indicate just how huge a project this was to accomplish in such a short time.
Changes in wildlife patterns were subtle to the average visitor at first, but if you listen to the resident biologist at the refuge that is monitoring the changes, there was quite a lot of surprise at just how fast some of the changes happened.
Today, this huge section of the refuge has been returned to the powers of Puget Sound and the Nisqually River for management. Every month, changes happen that are part of this once tidal land returning to its original tidal state.
The next step of the process was to construct a 1 mile (1.6 km) boardwalk over the mudflats, so that visitors have a chance to watch the tides come in and out, and watch the life of Puget Sound happen right before their eyes.
If you visit once, you may not really understand what is going on. If you visit twice in one day, you may get a good feel of the refuge changes because you will get a chance to see the refuge at high tide and low tide. If you visit once a year the changes will be pretty noticeable, and if you haven't been here for a while you may be in for a treat or a disappointment, depending on what you expect.
Don't expect to see everything right next to the new boardwalk. Keep in mind that the organisms that are food for so many birds and fish are still developing in the mud, so the shore birds and fish and other visitors to the mud flats are only occasional near the boardwalk at this time (February of 2013) - however there are more and more every year.
The web site below is for the river delta restoration project, which involves a number of different organizations and partner groups and partner sources of finances that aren't even listed on their web site (but are listed on a sign near the trails at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge).
Various Programs including Summer Weekends
Due to the popularity of the refuge and its proximity to many populated areas, there has been an extensive effort to create interesting and educational programs where people can learn more about the area.
These programs include information on the bird life of the refuge, plant life, history of the area (including a program on the Medicine Creek Treaty) and a few programs aimed at children. During most Wednesdays there is a weekly bird walk that is extremely popular even in cold and wet months.
A number of the programs are offered on the weekend days during the warm weather months (April through September). Saturday programs during the rest of the year may also include photography classes over at the refuge education center.
Bird watching trips tend to take place in the morning, as that is when the birds are most active. Some of the other programs take place in the late morning or early afternoon. There is a schedule of programs on the web site.
A schedule of programs is available on the refuge web site. Select the "Events Programs & News" item from the menu on the left side of the page. The weekend nature programs get started in April and can run as late as September or so, depending on what is going on that year.
The variety of the programs and the variety of the presenters does present a bit of a challenge in terms of trying to recommend particular programs.
+ As a general rule I highly recommend the "Nisqually Estuary Restoration" program, especially if this is put on by Jesse Barham, Nisqually Refuge Restoration Biologist. There are an awful lot of resources being put into trying to determine what is happening on the refuge now that tides have been restored to the delta. This program also includes the history of how the refuge management decided the refuge needed to undergo this radical transformation and restoration.
+ Any of the bird walks are generally done by volunteers that enjoy birds, but the variety that appears at the refuge is fairly substantial. Every once in a while you might run across something where one of the volunteers is stumped and defers to someone else to identify. This should be commended, as there are an awful lot of people out there that would simply take a wild guess just to act like they knew what they were talking about.
+ As noted above, all year on almost all Wednesdays there is a bird walk in the morning.
+ The "Medicine Creek Treaty Walk" was one that I found somewhat less informative and would probably not do again, though with a different refuge volunteer or an actual refuge employee leading it, it might be more interesting. I expected a lot more information on the treaty and the impact to local tribes, and the ultimate effect on today's refuge. This was only a very brief and disappointing part of the talk. In this particular case, I honestly feel that the volunteer presenting the talk was not as well informed on the history of the area as they should have been. There was a lot more information on the history of the farm that used to occupy this land, which was somewhat interesting, but I had been expecting a much larger ratio of Medicine Creek Treaty information.
+ There is an annual Nisqually Watershed Festival that draws all manner of people to the refuge, and has a number of events associated with it. This includes the local Nisqually tribe members showing why salmon should be preserved for future generations thanks to their special cooking.
Some of these activities are so popular that it pays to come on a day that most other people would avoid.
Also check the activities calendars of the Tahoma Audubon Society which also has some programs at the refuge.
- Historical Travel
- Family Travel
Exploring South Puget Sound by Kayak
While the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge itself doesn't have kayak launch facilities, it is possible to find both a boat ramp and suitable beach at the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, which isn't exactly part of the refuge but is located on State of Washington lands immediately to the north of the refuge. From here, it is possible to explore the northern reaches of the refuge, as well as the State of Washington wildlife lands, by kayak. It is also possible to go fairly far up McAllister Creek by Kayak, as even though it is on refuge lands people are not excluded from it most of the time.
While it is possible to explore the area by motorized craft as well, the water is very shallow, and there are a lot of rocks in the sand. Therefore, most people who do put motorized craft into the water there only do so to get out to the main part of Puget Sound. The risk of damaging a propeller sticking down into the water is fairly large - especially at low tide.
You need to be very careful if you decide to explore any of the sandy beaches on foot, as when the tide comes in it comes in at a rate of about 8 feet (2.5 meters) per hour at its fastest rate. It is very easy to get too far from your boat or from land and get trapped if you are exploring the beaches on foot.
The address below is for the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, which is where the boat launch is located. You will need to purchase a State of Washington Discover Pass in order to visit this area as it is on State of Washington lands. See my Discover Pass tip.
Please keep in mind that the nature center is only open very limited hours, and therefore facilities such as restrooms are also of very limited access. The restrooms at the top of the parking area are open all the time, but are primitive concrete pit toilets.
Also, the parking lot at this point is very difficult to access if you are driving a larger vehicle with a trailer, and turning around is quite a challenge. If you have a larger boat or a larger vehicle of any size, I highly suggest finding another boat ramp. The ramp is particularly challenging at low tide.
- Sailing and Boating
Nisqually Estuary Trail (second segment - walkway)
When to visit the new walkway, which provides viewing access above the tidal mud flats of the Nisqually river delta? My suggestion is to plan for several trips out to the end: one at high tide and one after the high tide has dropped a bit. This gives the wildlife that feeds on creatures left behind by the tides a chance to get close to the walkway as they follow the tide outward. Thus, the most important part of your visit to the refuge and/or a visit to the new walkway may be to check the tide tables for the timing of high tide.
On February 1, 2011 the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail opened to the public after a fairly rapid progression from survey stakes (in March) to deep stakes being driven into the deep tidal mud flats to support the structure, to bridges, to installation of the boardwalk and its structures. Keep in mind that tidal mud flats are far from an easy envornment to construct anything, but the 15 foot + tide fluctuation that happens here is particularly difficult on which to build things. There are only so many hours in a day that the construction site isn't covered by water.
The schedule of events went something like this, according to the web site of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge:
Until 1 PM: arrival and walk to boardwalk trailhead on your own, which is a 1 mile walk from the visitor's center.
1:00 to 1:45 pm: speakers
1:45pm: official ribbon cutting ceremony. Visitors may then walk on the boardwalk.
3:40 pm: High tide on the Nisqually estuary.
According to one of the volunteers at the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, there were some 250 or so people on hand to attend the opening ceremony. Can you imagine the mad house this would have been had they done this on a weekend day?
The final 1/4 of a mile of the boardwalk will again be closed February 21 to 25 for some construction modifications to the trail.
So, the good news is that the 1 mile long boardwalk is open to the public, but the bad news is that because it is new it is very popular, and the purpose of observing wildlife still leaves a little to be desired. Many of the birds are keeping away from this structure right now due to the number of noisy visitors on the boardwalk. Eventually, some of the birds will get used to this and over time the number of visitors may decrease as it will no longer be something new for people to go see.
Now, features of the trail: there are three covered open side viewing platforms. One of these is quite large, and seems to be designed to fit an entire class on it. There is a fourth shelter that is a complete viewing blind, which has slots cut in it for observers to watch birds without disturbing them quite as much as an open platform would cause.
There are several wide spots in the pathway along its entire length, and these are intended to eventually have benches as well.
The observation platform that is closest to the start of the boardwalk has a spotting scope built into it, but none of the rest of the structures have these as of this writing. The trail is still so popular that even if it is equipped with more scopes chances are they will be kept occupied during much of the day. Therefore, I suggest bringing your own telephoto equipment.
Keep in mind that the entire area crossed by the boardwalk is tidal land. Therefore, what you see will depend quite a bit not only on the time of year, but also the tide level. The lower tides will generate some interest from birds that will look for small creatures in the mud, but because the majority of the tidal lands were only restored in 2009, it will take a while for the salt water mud dwelling creatures to completely restore themselves to these lands. So, with only a small selection of creatures to eat, only a few select birds will explore the mud when the tide is out.
When the tide is in, it brings a number of creatures with it. This includes jelly fish, which are very easy to see just below the surface. Many of the other fish are harder to see.
The tides are still continuing to shape the lands around the boardwalk, and it will be very interesting to see how things change over time. As more land is reclaimed by the tides, bird life will also move around a bit, with their food supply also moving around a bit.
From start to finish, the boardwalk offers a view of the various transition ecosystems. The start of the boardwalk has freshwater marshes (dry at times in the summer) that attract the non-salt water birds and other wildlife (mink, river otter, and other mammals have been seen here). However, those marshes are on the inside of the dike on which the gravel trail sits. Once you enter the boardwalk there is flowing fresh water from McAllister Creek in the distance, and tidal flowing fresh water mud flats. In this area, the mud flats are covered with water during high tide, but it is fresh water that is not able to flow into Puget Sound due to high tide. The salt water, being heavier, sits below the fresh water coming into the refuge at this point. Moving along the boardwalk further and further to the salt water of Puget Sound, the fresh water tidal mud flats become more and more salty.
Therefore, as time goes on, there will be more and more opportunity to view some interesting natural ecosystem restoration here, and the entire range from flowing fresh water at McAllister Creek to the shore of Puget Sound will be visible from the walkway.
- Hiking and Walking
Nisqually River Overlook
A very short branch of the Twin Barns Loop Trail leeds to the edge of the Nisqually River, and allows a view of the river through a gap in the trees.
The river moves fairly quickly most of the time, and this is the home to a number of diving birds, including cormorants and mergansers. However, you will have to be very fortunate to see them, as they are scattered through the length of the river, and this viewpoint only allows for a view of a very short segment of the river.
There is a spotting scope built into the observation platform.
It can be fairly difficult to see the birds through the trees around the platform, and they tend to stay fairly far from the platform. So, it is fairly important to have telephoto equipment at this location.
As of this writing, it is possible to go slightly further north from the platform to the end of a gravel road, and from here it is also possible to see northward (downriver) some distance without obstruction. In looking at the main photo for this tip, you will see the River Overlook on the right side, and on the left part of the photo you will see an orange plastic fence barrier. At this barrier, it is possible to see downriver for quite some distance.
However, as time goes on, the trees will likely grow larger and block some of the view. The exact nature of what will happen here long term is unkown as the area along the river is part of habitat restoration of the Nisqually River Delta, and from here north all is being turned over to the flood and ebb stages of the river and the power of the Puget Sound tides. Maybe the view will remain, and maybe parts of it will go away.
The river flow level changes fairly substantially over time (high in the spring as the combined snow melt and rain water happens, much less water in the late summer).
Visitor's Center: Part 2: interpretive displays
Displays inside the interpretive part of the visitor's center include fun facts about wildlife, a life size cross sectional model of the tideflats and its wildlife that form part of the refuge, a miniature 3-dimensional map of the entire Nisqually River, and a video presentation system that can play any of six recorded programs.
Most educational to me were the fun facts about some of the wildlife found on the refuge. For example, mallard ducks are capable of flying at 60 mph if they need to, and an airplane once hit a mallard at 21,000 feet.
The full scale model of a cross section of the mut flats and the full scale models of some of the birds could also be helpful in idendification of them, but I still find shore birds a bit of a tangle to sort out.
One of the things lacking is some sort of detailed program about the exciting recent developments in habitat restoration. The 2009 project was a huge effort. There is a small brochure available about this undertaking, but unfortunatley getting people to stop and read things is hard these days. A video presentation would probably reach a larger audience. However, only one of the six recorded video presentations in the theatre have to do specifically with the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The rest of the programs are more of a general information about the National Wildlife Refuge system and the importance of conservation of wildlife in general.
Unfortunately the same goes for the rest of the displays here: getting a modern audience to stop and read things can be really hard, and while the displays are interesting I'm not sure they are enough to make the modern audience stop and take a look and inform themselves about what is really going on in this refuge, and its significance.
- Family Travel
- Museum Visits
Founder's Memorial Grove
Just slightly past the junction of the Twin Barns Loop Trail with the branch trail to the Twin Barns Overlook, you will find a grove of large trees right at what was once the entrance to the Twin Barns. This area is equipped with several picnic tables, and a gravel road that leads back to the visitor's center.
The memorial stone reads:
The Founders Memorial Grove
established September 3, 1984
_ . _
Dedicated to those individuals and organizations whose efforts preserved the Nisqually Delta as a National Wildlife Refuge and exemplify the unending dedication to preserve forever this and other features of our unique natural heritage.
The grove is dedicated particularly for those wishing to stay here and study the wildlife that happens through. There are bald eagles that visit the trees above the grove, an assortment of swallows that nest in the barns, and woodpeckers and others that visit the large trees.
To get the best viewing, it is necessary to sit and wait for the wildlife to become less afraid, and visit after it has had a chance to decide that you don't pose a threat to it.
The two barns are an extremely popular spot for various swallow types during the late spring and early summer, so be sure to take a look at who has set up house around the barns when you visit this area.
All of the boardwalks on the refuge appear to be planned in such a way as to make them accessible to wheelchairs and others with mobility difficulties, but the Founder's Memorial Grove is on grass that is frequently very wet and boggy, and the connection to the boardwalk is on a small staircase. It would still be possible for someone to get here by using the gravel road, but planning ahead to go here would be required to accomplish this.
- Family Travel
- Hiking and Walking
Visitor's Center: Part 1: the basics
Upon entering the refuge, the first and foremost thing to do is to stop at the Nisqually Refuge's visitor's center. This first stop serves multiple purposes:
1. The first thing to do when visiting the refuge is to pay the US $3 entry fee to visit - unless of course you don't actually plan on going out into the refuge but just stopped in to say "Hi" or something. The pay station is a self-serve facility. You need to fill out the form, put the money in the envilope, tear off the receipt, drop the envilope in the receptacle provided, and keep the receipt in your pocket.
If you have any of several different types of passes, such as the National Park's Golden Age Pass or similar, it is accepted at the refuge as well. However, you must have that pass with you, and you must fill out the form and receipt to show that this was your method of paying.
2. Good restroom stopping places are few and far between once you get on the trails on the refuge. Therefore, you may wish to use the facilities or the drinking fountain in the refuge visitor's center. As you walk up the ramp, to the platform between the two buildings, the facilities and drinking fountains are on the left.
3. On the right side of the walkway as you get to the top of the ramp is the actual visitor's center, including interpretive displays and the refuge store. The current hours of the visitor's center are Wednesday through Sunday, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
The front desk in the visitor's center includes a book of recent sightings. This may be useful to you to see what things have recently been seen and where they were seen, as this may help you locate places of interest. There is also a guest book to sign, if you want to.
4. The visitor's center includes several marshes and ponds around the center. You will find a few tall trees within sight of the center, and it isn't unusual to see Bald Eagles and a few other birds in these waters. Therefore, you may want to take some time at the visitor's center to look for wildlife right next to the building. In fact, in 2009, an American Bittern decided to set up residence for a few weeks in the pond right next to the ramp into the visitor's center, so that anyone could stop by and greet him (usually, it is very difficult to find these birds due to their habit of hiding in tall grass).
5. If the board room is open, there is a wonderful window overlooking the pond behind the visitors center. Also take a look at whatever is on display in there.
So, check carefully as you walk up the ramp into the building, as there may be something interesting right next to the ramp. If it is late spring or early summer, most likely there will be nesting swallows on at least a few of the locations on the underside of the roof (Watch where you Step!) Become familiar with the common yellowthroat call, as if you are visiting in the warmer months and are patient one of them is very likely to fly right over the walkway, and maybe pause briefly there on the railing before going back into the marsh.
Also, if you continue straight as you walk up the ramp, you will come to a covered but still outdoor observation deck over one of the ponds. You may want to check this pond to see what is wandering around in the water there. Under the overhang there is a mounted binocular device that will let you get a close look at whatever you might see.
Nisqually Estuary Trail (first segment - dike)
Having opened after several months of very rapid hard work, the first segment of the Nisqually Estuary Trail has been built on top of a new dike constructed to maintain a smaller selection of wetlands, while allowing the natural tidal and river flow to return to as close to their natural state as possible.
The new dike runs east to west, from just outside the Twin Barns Loop Trail, to a point about 3/4 of the way across the river delta area. It then turns southward and completes its enclosure of approximately 1/3 of the refuge. It does not, however, have a publicly accessible trail across the entire top of it. The trail is publicly accessible from the Twin Barns Loop trail to just past its turn to the south. From there on out, it is the domain of the wildlife only.
At the point of the trails turning, a new boardwalk will soon be constructed that leads all the way out to Puget Sound, so that birds that normally visit the salt water may be viewed as well. Also, Orca Whales and an assortment of other sea creatures may be viewed from time to time, which previously were visible from the old trail system that completely surrounded the refuge - and also prevented the natural water system from doing its work for the wildlife.
Check for various ducks in the marshes you can see, but also check for various animals and birds on the wet ground. This includes killdeer (saw several) and kestrels perched in the trees above the marshy ground and hunting for small rodents.
The first segment of the new Nisqually Estuary Trail is approximately 2/3 of a mile (1.1 1km) in length. The boardwalk to get to the edge of Puget Sound will add approximately 1.5 miles (2.5 km) off the end of the new Nisqually Estuary Trail that is on top of the dike. However, as that part of the trail has not been built yet, it will have to be covered elsewhere.
- Family Travel
- Hiking and Walking
Twin Barns Observation Platform
As the name implies, this overlook is on the north side of the Twin Barns, and provide an elevated observation area of the newly restored Nisqually River Delta area. There are several marshes nearby, including one that is near the base of the overlook. Therefore, watch carefully near your location, as what you want to see may not be that far away!
There are two scopes built into the platform. However, the distant marshes may be blocked by trees or bushes near their shore, so you will want to bring your own scope so that you can move it around a little and see as much as possible where you want to see.
The trail is approximately 300 feet (93 meters) from the Twin Barns Loop trail, and it is approximately 1/2 mile (0.8 km) from the Visitor's Center to the branch in the trail.
- Hiking and Walking
- Family Travel
Riparian Forest Overlook
A 400 foot (125 meter) boardwalk above the sometimes-flooded forest next to the Nisqually River leads to an observation deck located near a small pond in the forest.
There is a good possibility of finding various wood-dwelling birds here, including various woodpeckers and certain ducks (such as bufflehead, wood ducks and mergansers) that prefer water surrounded by forest.
Along with the benches at the observation platform, there is one location along the trail that includes an observation deck with benches.
Most likely, for best viewing, you should sit on the benches and quietly listen to what is going on in the woods. Many species that hide in the woods are more likely to come out of hiding if they feel they are not being threatened.
- Family Travel
Twin Barnes Loop Trail: 1 mile (1.7 km)
Built almost entirely on a boardwalk above the marshy ground of the Nisqually River Delta, the Twin Barnes Loop Trail is the basic birdwatching loop trail of this National Wildlife Refuge.
It is wonderful that there are a few benches and wide spots in the boardwalk, as this allows visitors the chance to sit quietly and wait for the local bird life to come to them, rather than scaring away with motion.
There are ponds and streams visible from the trail itself, and several branches to the trail exist that are worthy of exploration as well.
The signs are absolutely wonderful, including information on the various branch trails and a fairly significant number of signs that help identify local birds and give basic facts about those birds found here.
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