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June 25, 2022

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Ridgefield refuge aims to expand its embrace

It’s planning facility, activities to get public involved in nature

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
9 Photos
Chris Lapp of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the project leader at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, spreads out a big map in his office that shows the Port of Ridgefield (at bottom) and the Carty Unit of the Refuge (above). The Port has built trails across its property; the Refuge will build new ones to meet them. The result will be a miles-long seasonal walking loop.
Chris Lapp of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the project leader at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, spreads out a big map in his office that shows the Port of Ridgefield (at bottom) and the Carty Unit of the Refuge (above). The Port has built trails across its property; the Refuge will build new ones to meet them. The result will be a miles-long seasonal walking loop. (Steve DiPaola for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — It’s not exactly Malheur, which was easily seized by a handful of guys with guns mostly because it’s so many miles from anywhere.

The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge sits beside a rapidly urbanizing town that used to be tiny. Today’s Ridgefield has nearly 7,000 residents, a busy downtown, a growing port and a whole bunch of future plans — many involving the refuge itself.

Last year, the refuge celebrated its 50th birthday. That included the unveiling of a wide, flat pedestrian bridge that arcs over railroad tracks and provides universal access to the northern Carty Unit. Prior to that, for 34 years, you could only reach Carty’s glories by half-walking, half-climbing up and over a much steeper, narrower walkway. It was a dead end to anybody in a wheelchair. Refuge staffers see the new bridge as the fulfillment of a mission — to bring people and the refuge closer together.

More of that is underway. Officials are collecting public input as they envision replacing their tight office trailer with a spacious, multifaceted Community and Nature Center. Part of the plan also involves encouraging pedestrian traffic via seasonal walking paths that connect with the Port of Ridgefield’s new trails, completing a miles-long loop from downtown.

“We are trying to think outside the box. We don’t just want to think about what a visitor center is supposed to be,” said project leader Christopher Lapp of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “What do we really want? It’s an opportunity to engage with the city.”

There’s no choice about that, added Kim Strassburg, the urban refuge coordinator for Fish & Wildlife in the Portland region. All across the nation, she said, new policies and a new mindset are driving decision making about closing the distance between city dwellers and the great outdoors.

“There’s a cultural shift underway,” Strassburg said. In addition to managing lands and protecting resources, she said, agencies like Fish & Wildlife must cultivate environmental awareness in a population that is increasingly estranged from nature.

“We’re facing a crisis of relevancy, not just for our agency but for all of natural resources conservation,” she said. “If we do what we’ve always done, we may not get the same support.”

The American population is now 81 percent urban and 19 percent rural, according to the census bureau. The population of the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region has grown to an astonishing 2.4 million.

“We are in such close proximity to large urban areas,” said Lapp — who lives in Battle Ground, another fast-growing, formerly small town. “It’s a high priority for the refuge to serve those areas. This isn’t just some far-away place. It’s part of our community.”

Community driven

Lapp, Strassburg and other Fish & Wildlife officials earlier this year launched a public process to gather ideas and opinions. They held community meetings on Aug. 11 and Sept. 10; then they tried to snag everybody who visited the refuge during the BirdFest and Bluegrass celebration on Oct. 1 and 2. A big tent set up at Carty contained opinion surveys, white boards, landscape photos and maps — and officials with CTL Engineering of Boise, Idaho, which will design the Community and Nature Center.

You can still weigh in, through the end of this year. Go to www.ridgefieldcommunityandnaturecenter.com to take a survey and describe your ideas.

“It’s very important to us that the public drive this process,” Lapp said.

What has the public dreamed up so far? A cultural center. A library. A museum. Classrooms and labs. Junior ranger programs. Night skywatching.

“There’ll be a major emphasis on education,” said Gary Glassing of CTL.

How about on-site day care, so parents can drop off their kids and go explore? How about an art studio? A nature playground? They’re not out of the question, Strassburg said.

“Urban audiences are disconnected from nature,” she said. Not surprisingly, kids who grow up around nothing but asphalt and concrete find the great outdoors, not the city, strange and scary, she said. “We want to make nature safe and friendly for urban people. We want to get them involved in this place. That means not just bringing people to the refuge, but also bringing the refuge to people.”

To Learn More:

• There’s a website for this project. It’s www.ridgefieldcommunityandnaturecenter.com.

• The local Friends of the Refuge: https://ridgefieldfriends.org.

• U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife: www.fws.gov/refuge/ridgefield.

Mission concerns

But public input went still further, with suggestions like offices for local nonprofits, community meeting spaces and even a performance venue. Aren’t those pretty far afield from the conservation mission? Some commenters certainly thought so; there have been just as many admonitions to “stay focused on the mission” and “protect the historical and cultural resources” as to add bells and whistles at Carty.

“There’s a process we’ll have to go through” as far as final decisions go, Lapp said. As project leader, he has the authority to approve new uses and facilities that are clearly wildlife-relevant and appropriate, he said; ideas that are more of a stretch will run up the chain to agency supervisors and regional officials, he said.

For example, Lapp finds the idea of a Boys & Girls Club intriguing. It’s a perfect opportunity to engage youth with nature. It would probably have diverse demographics — an important part of the new urban mission, Strassburg said.

But would it impact the refuge itself too much? Questions like that remain to be answered, Lapp said; right now, the process is still about brainstorming.

Physical recreation for its own sake — like dog walking, bike riding, kite flying, Frisbee throwing — will remain forbidden at the refuge. The place will stay a wildlife sanctuary, not a park.

What’s next?

Glassing said your standard, generic Fish & Wildlife visitor center comes in three versions: Small, medium or large. Those are all the options you usually get, he said.

This project is different. The government will pay for federal facilities. But the new Community and Nature Center will require community partners and community dollars. The Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge will play a key role in raising private contributions, Lapp said, because federal employees can’t do that.

Lapp feels confident about the whole project. Ridgefield residents and officials love their refuge, he said, and are motivated both to preserve and improve it as the town grows.

“This community is so involved with the refuge,” he said. “Having just celebrated the 50th anniversary, this is a great time for this project to be coming on board.”

Look for firmer news about concepts, partners, design and construction next spring.

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