From waterfalls to artesian springs, from ancient volcanos to lava flows, and from fish and wildlife habitat to old growth, this patch of land in Southwest Washington seemingly has it all.
And, it is now open to the public.
In this day of diminished public access, the ceremony held last Friday to dedicate the opening of the new Merrill Lake Unit of the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area was a genuine reason for celebration. It marked the completion of a seven-year project to acquire and protect this unique landscape from developer’s bulldozers.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), in partnership with other organizations and agencies, have donated this parcel to the state for the enjoyment of fishermen, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
The land has been officially deeded to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and it will now be managed by that agency.
The diversity of habitats within the unit is stunning.
“It’s like a national park within 1,400 acres,” said Bill Richardson, the Oregon-Washington Senior Lands Program Manager for the RMEF.
Sculpted by volcanic activity over the past thousand years, the parcel features waterfalls along the Kalama River, giant old growth trees, ancient lava flows, and lots of quality habitat for elk, deer, black bear, and other species.
The 1,453-acre unit is located north of the town of Cougar. It is bordered by Merrill Lake at the southern end, and the Kalama River to the north.
The project was moved along in three phases.
In 2012, the RMEF worked with Merrill Lake Properties LLC to start the process of acquiring 297 acres along Merrill Lake’s northern shore. In 2016, the RMEF completed the next phase by purchasing the entire property to ensure it was not developed.
The final phase was to transfer the property to the WDFW.
The project was helped along when the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, (WWRP), managed by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (WSRCO), provided grants and funding. Generous RMEF members also stepped up with donations.
The ceremony included tours of the unit guided by RMEF staff, and a lunch featuring awards for the people that helped make this possible. RMEF officials from many different states were joined at the ceremony by WDFW staff, state troopers, WWRP and WSRCO staff, members of the Clark-Skamania Flyfishers, the Vancouver Wildlife League, and more.
Speaking on behalf of the WDFW, Director Kelly Susewind talked about the importance of this project to future generations.
“These are places you come to to refresh yourself,” Susewind said, “and to preserve this forever…it’s good to know this will be there now for (our) grandkids.”
He described the project as a model that can be followed for other projects, with many partners working together toward the common goal of preserving special places, and opening them to the public.
The property, which was once owned by a private timberlands company, can be an example on how to manage lands for wildlife.
A large clear cut has been replanted with trees at low densities, and volunteers have spent countless hours thinning the trees even more to allow sunlight for the growth of browse for animals.
The contrast can be stark when comparing this clear cut with the herbicide-heavy applications on timber properties. Instead of a mono-culture of production trees, bereft of any other green, this clear cut is rich with early seral forest growth that provides forage and year-round habitat for elk and deer.
The upper sections of the Kalama River flow through the property, and this cold, groundwater system may someday support native bull trout again. It is excellent rearing habitat for juvenile salmon and steelhead.
The property also borders Merrill Lake, which is managed for catch-and-release fly fishing for trout.
Richardson is happy the public will get to access this unique area.
“It’s very gratifying knowing this is now available to the public,” Richardson said, “but it’s bittersweet as well, because I have enjoyed touring this property and showing it off, and that phase has kind of ended.”
He is especially happy that sportsmen and women will get to enjoy it.
“It’s not just recreational access, it’s hunting access, it’s fishing access. Merrill Lake is one of the premier fly-fishing lakes in the state,” he added.
“Now it is time for the public to enjoy it.”
Richardson and members of the RMEF are proud of what they have accomplished, but the work is not over yet.
“I anticipate that we are going to be funding stewardship projects, thinning, planting, seeding, and other treatments, as we do with other properties that we’ve given to the WDFW throughout the state,” Richardson said.
To get there
Take Interstate 5 to the Woodland exit. Head east on State Route 503 to US Highway Forest Service Road 81. Take a left onto Forest Road 81 and drive past the Merrill Lake Campground about 2 miles to the white gate on the west side of the intersection with forest road 7500.
The access is walk-in only. A Discover Pass is required to park at the property.