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$31M Steigerwald restoration project winding down

Washougal-area wildlife refuge to reopen May 1; ceremony tentatively planned for May 7

By Kelly Moyer, Camas-Washougal Post-Record
Published: April 9, 2022, 3:57pm

As a three-year, $31 million restoration project once described as “the largest the lower Columbia River has seen” wraps up at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge this spring, visitors will again be able to enjoy the wild beauty of the Washougal-area refuge.

The wildlife refuge will reopen to the public May 1.

If local COVID-19 levels remain low, the project’s partners will host a free, public reopening ceremony at 10 a.m. May 7 at the refuge, 35001 Lewis and Clark Highway.

The extensive Steigerwald Reconnection Project, which kicked off in 2019, reduced the area’s flood risk, opened up recreation opportunities at the local refuge and benefited wildlife that depend on the refuge.

David Ripp, CEO for the Port of Camas-Washougal, said the Steigerwald Reconnection Project not only added recreation opportunities but “also essentially eliminated the flood risk to the Port’s Industrial Park, which is the economic engine for our community.”

“At a time when everyone is looking for a way to stretch their dollar a little bit further, this project checks all the right boxes,” Ripp said. “It’s been a pleasure partnering with the Estuary Partnership, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rotschy, and other members of this phenomenal project team.”

The restoration project also created more than 100 acres of wetland, reforested 250 acres of riparian habitat, planted more than half a million trees and shrubs, reconnected 965 acres of Columbia River floodplain, added 1.1 miles of trails inside the refuge and benefitted salmon in Gibbons Creek.

“Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge has always been home to a diversity of wildlife. We are so grateful to our partners, volunteers and supporters,” Juliette Fernandez, refuge manager at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge complex, stated in a news release about the reopening. “Through this amazing partnership, we have seen new habitats form right before our eyes, and we are already seeing wildlife respond like never before. This is an amazing reconnection for salmon, lamprey, waterbirds and other wildlife, but it is also an invitation for our visitors and valued community to reconnect in a whole new way.”

Wide variety of partners

Laura Watson, director for the Washington Department of Ecology, said the project helped “reestablish hundreds of acres of floodplain habitat in a portion of the river where restoration opportunities are limited.”

“A healthy Columbia River is essential for maintaining and preserving Washington’s environment and restoring our threatened salmon runs,” Watson added.

The restoration project had a variety of partners, including the cities of Camas and Washougal, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, the Port of Camas-Washougal, the Washougal School District, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Washougal Department of Transportation and the Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards.

Funding for the reconnection project came from the BPA, the Washington Department of Ecology, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, USFW and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

“The Steigerwald Reconnection Project is the largest BPA-funded estuary restoration project to date, and we are excited to be part of the stakeholder team helping fish regain access to nearly 1,000 acres of feeding and rearing habitat,” BPA Executive Vice President of Environment, Fish and Wildlife Scott Armentrout stated in the news release.

Elaine Placido, executive director of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, added that the project will serve as “a blueprint for habitat restoration on the lower Columbia River that benefits people, salmon and wildlife.”

“The Steigerwald Reconnection Project is also a shining example of how strong partnerships between state and federal agencies, local governments, environmental nonprofits, schools and community members can be leveraged to simultaneously achieve habitat, recreation and economic goals,” Placido said.