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March 27, 2023

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Wildlife refuge at Ridgefield celebrates 50th anniversary Monday

Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964 was impetus for its birth a year later

By , Columbian Small Cities Reporter
4 Photos
A Great Blue Heron takes flight at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.
A Great Blue Heron takes flight at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was created to make up for habitat destroyed by the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. Photo Gallery

If you don’t know the story behind it, you’d have no reason to suspect Ridgefield’s tranquil wildlife refuge was born out of the most violent earthquake in American history.

In late March 1964, a magnitude-9.2 quake struck Alaska, leaving buildings and homes in ruin and killing 139 people. The jolt triggered a wave of tsunamis felt as far away as Japan and New Zealand, and it devastated miles of wildlife habitat along the western coast of North America.

A little more than a year later, on May 18, 1965, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge along with three other wildlife preserves in the Willamette Valley. The large stretch of grasslands, wetlands and forests lining the shores of the Columbia River along the western-most edge of Clark County was set aside as a quiet winter home for dusky Canada geese after the quake left their main nesting area to the north in severe disrepair.

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of that landmark day. But of course, the rich history of the scenic preserve runs much deeper than that.

Archeologists have found evidence of at least 2,300 years of continuous human settlement on the land. Today, the refuge stands as the most intact archeological site on the lower Columbia River, and it’s a treasure trove of Chinookan artifacts from the people who once lived on the land.

Ten years ago, more than 100 volunteers came together to build the Cathlapotle Plankhouse, a full-scale cedar replica of the Chinookan dwellings that used to adorn the landscape. The recreation was based on archeological findings dug straight out of the land.

Since it opened, the plankhouse has hosted more than 50,000 visitors and 40,000 students who have come by to learn about the area’s past through educational programs and cultural demonstrations. The plankhouse is open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays from April to October each year.

When the Lewis and Clark expedition trekked through the Cathlapotle Village in late 1805 looking for trade opportunities, it was one of the largest settlements on the Columbia River. The explorers estimated some 900 people must have lived there.

In his journal, William Clark wrote that he spotted 14 plankhouses in the front of the village where the river widened. But Clark and his companions had no idea they were standing on ground containing the footprints of plankhouses dating all the way back to the Iron Age.

The massive quake of 1964 came to be known as the Great Alaska Earthquake. The disaster was particularly devastating for dusky Canada geese, as it raised the elevation of bird’s core breeding ground in the Copper River Delta several feet, and the birds failed to adapt to the change.

The shift left nesting areas — dominated by intertidal grasses and sedges — with less exposure to saltwater. Consequently, critical plant life where the geese nested began to die, and soon their population went into a steep decline as food resources dried up.

Fifty years after its birth, the refuge has grown to encompass about 5,300 acres of wildlife habitat for hundreds of species of animals and plants. The land, divided into five sections, has become a nesting ground for bald eagles, herons, owls and ducks. And dusky Canada geese return to the refuge for its nutrient-rich grasses and mild winters.

More than 160,000 visitors stop by the refuge each year to watch beavers and migratory birds from their cars, hunt waterfowl or hike along the Oaks to Wetlands Trail or the Kiwi Trail. The place is run by a small but dedicated staff of Fish and Wildlife workers, and the non-profit Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge raises money to help preserve the site.

This winter, the staff began working on improving access points to the north end of the refuge. Plans to add new bridges in the next few years are also in the works, and eventually the Carty Unit will boast a new visitor center.

Looking to the future, city leaders and the Port of Ridgefield envision the land butting up against the refuge along the Lake River waterfront becoming a bustling hub of new homes, stores, restaurants and other businesses. Nonetheless, the also hope to preserve the serenity of the refuge.

Columbian Small Cities Reporter