Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Aug. 4, 2020

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Oak restoration on track at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

Refuge managers: Give it time, Oaks to Wetlands Trail should return to its former glory thanks to logging, trails-building

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published:
9 Photos
Hauling a wheelbarrow full of rocks toward a new segment of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge's Oaks to Wetlands Trail are Tom Kelleher, second from right, and Jack Hubner, right, both volunteers with the Washington Trails Association. The WTA is lending its trail-design expertise, as well as its grunt labor, to building a smarter, more sustainable north loop of the trail. In order to give rare Oregon white oaks a chance to thrive here, hundreds of towering Douglas firs were recently removed from the landscape.
Hauling a wheelbarrow full of rocks toward a new segment of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge's Oaks to Wetlands Trail are Tom Kelleher, second from right, and Jack Hubner, right, both volunteers with the Washington Trails Association. The WTA is lending its trail-design expertise, as well as its grunt labor, to building a smarter, more sustainable north loop of the trail. In order to give rare Oregon white oaks a chance to thrive here, hundreds of towering Douglas firs were recently removed from the landscape. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — Messy, muddy expanses of tree stumps and rock piles are not what draw visitors to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, but they’re what’s on display this winter, up in the northern loop of the Oaks to Wetlands Trail.

Just give it time, refuge managers say. Sunlight now penetrating deep into the forest should help restore the indigenous oak woodland that flourished here two centuries ago — before European settlement and fire suppression encouraged Douglas firs to conquer the landscape and crowd out the oaks. Within a few years, refuge managers say, the Oaks to Wetlands landscape should start resembling its name once again.

Meanwhile, ongoing construction is realigning that trail so it’s more compatible with local topography, wildlife and the pounding feet of thousands of visitors every year.

“This is a really exciting opportunity to redo the trail at the same time as the oak restoration,” said Josie Finley, visitor services manager. “We can put to work some best practices about trails and wildlife, and best practices about people.”

Last year, 600 Douglas fir trees were felled and removed from the Oaks to Wetlands area, said Eric Anderson, acting project manager. The job was carefully done by loggers for the Cowlitz Tribe, which wanted the woody debris for a fish-habitat restoration project at Abernathy Creek near Longview, he said.

One doesn’t usually expect widespread logging in a wildlife refuge, but “this was logging for the right reasons,” Anderson said.

“It’s a different landscape now,” he said. “What was crowded and dark is now an open area with scattered oaks that have the opportunity to thrive and spread.”

That should be great for birds and the overall diversity of wildlife here. And, oaks that grow big and spread out distribute more acorns more widely, picking up the slow pace of oak resurgence.

“Oak ecosystems offer habitat to mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, and associated invertebrate species,” says a 2015 analysis of oak restoration potential here. “Acorns produced by oak trees provide a food source for a variety of animals and invertebrates. Acorns are gathered, carried, and stashed by various birds and mammals which helps disperse the seeds and establish new oak trees.”

Broccoli, not asparagus

Up until last year’s mass removal of Douglas firs, Anderson said, the refuge’s overcrowded, shaded white oaks grew up spindly, without extending big canopies and without dropping many acorns.

“What we’ve got out there are thin stalks, like asparagus,” he said. “A classic oak is like broccoli, with a fat stem and a massive, flowering head.”

You can’t miss the handful of classic oaks here and there at the refuge: beautiful and shapely with huge, branching trunks, big limbs and broad, rounded crowns. What you can’t see is that they also have roots that go deep and wide. That’s a chief way oaks are handily fire-resistant: Fires that wipe out conifers and other understory plants don’t touch oak roots.

An oak woodland used to reign supreme here, thanks to low-level fires managed by the indigenous people, according to that 2015 report. Those fires kept the land relatively clear for game grazing and promoted the growth of seed and berry plants.

But the displacement of those people by white settlers caused a “major disruption” in the ecosystem as the fires ended, the report says, eventually leading to a complete takeover by faster- and taller-growing Douglas firs. That’s happening throughout this region, with Oregon white oaks losing 97 percent of their regional habitat in the last 200 years.

“Oaks are slowly growing trees,” Anderson said. “Doug firs grow three to four times faster. When European settlement first arrived here, the landscape was only oaks. Then the scales tipped the other way.”

Now that those firs are gone and sunlight can flood in, white oaks should be poised for a big, beautiful comeback in the Carty Unit. We’ll just have to exercise a little patience to see it.

“Oak recovery can take a long time,” Anderson said. “We’ll have a classic oak forest out there at some point, but it probably won’t be within my lifetime.”

Fortunately, less patience will be required to see that raw, stumpy Oaks to Wetlands landscape regenerate shrubs, flowers and grasses.

“We are expecting a lot of natural regrowth,” Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Alex Chmielewski wrote in an email. “Regular control of invasive weeds will also help our native plants grow back. If some areas are not responding well, or we are missing important species, we will look to do some plantings in the next few years.

“I expect that the site will look disturbed for a couple years as shrubs, grasses and forbs fill in,” Chmielewski wrote.

Trail through history

It might have been the James Carty family, or Carty cows, that established a web of trails here starting as long ago as 1836. The land became public property in 1966, but grazing continued for at least 30 more years as the acreage phased into a new identity as the Carty Unit of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Those old trail alignments really don’t make sense given the contours of the land, refuge managers say. “They’re like a plate of spaghetti” inside the northern loop, Anderson said — going up and down eroding slopes, plunging into mud puddles and crossing streams via mossy, rotting wooden footbridges.

“We inherited those trails. We don’t really know what their origins are,” spokeswoman Josie Finley said. “We think they were just created by … whatever made sense to people at the time.” Lately, she added, the trails are “starting to get loved to death.”

So, on a recent Thursday, approximately 20 trained volunteers with the Washington Trails Association, or WTA, fanned out across the north loop landscape. They’ve been here week after week this winter, and not just to contribute the grunt work of hauling dirt and rocks around. These volunteers have all devoted classroom study to the science of trail building. Some have even been to “trail skills college,” volunteer Bill Connolly said.

“They’re the trail building experts. We’re not,” Finley said.

WTA volunteers have been consulting with refuge staff, analyzing the topography and developing a smarter, sustainable new trail alignment. The new loop trail they’re building this winter is designed to follow the contours of the land, staying flat and avoiding erosion. “It’ll be pretty much a single grade, not so up and down,” Anderson said.

Learn more

More about the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

Official website: www.fws.gov/refuge/Ridgefield

Improvement and access projects: www.refuge2020.info

Local friends group: ridgefieldfriends.org

Volunteers spent two recent work parties building a segment across one particularly steep, difficult spot — digging a flat path into the hillside and then firming it up with large, jagged stones, sand and a top layer of gravel. “We’re trying to make it strong and stable so it doesn’t slough downhill,” volunteer Guy Hamblen said.

Meanwhile, many of those “spaghetti” trails crisscrossing the north loop have been permanently closed. Temporarily blocked are some popular trail segments that extend out to viewpoints like the southern tip of Boot Lake and a favorite picnic spot below one of the few classic oaks found here.

Those sites won’t be permanently off-limits, Finley said, but more study and design work is required to figure out how to get people to them without hurting the land or disturbing wildlife.

“Trail construction … is better when not rushed,” she said. “Some of those places take considerable planning in order to create the best user experience without ruining the habitat. We hope that people enjoy watching this trail evolve with the habitat around it.”

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