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News / Clark County News

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Herrera Beutler celebrate new administrative building

Lawmaker pushed to fund improvements at refuge

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 16, 2022, 8:07pm
4 Photos
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, second from right, joins her daughter, Abigail, 9, as they talk with members of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe at the ribbon -cutting for the new Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge administration building Friday morning.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, second from right, joins her daughter, Abigail, 9, as they talk with members of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe at the ribbon -cutting for the new Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge administration building Friday morning. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — On a brisk Friday morning, nature-lovers gathered to celebrate the ribbon-cutting for a new Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge administrative building after years of anticipation.

The complex, a wide structure adorned with large windows and natural wood, is a massive upgrade from the organization’s glorified double-wide trailer that could only squeeze in seven employees.

The atmosphere was joyful, with the volume of chatter and laughter easily covering the honks and hoots of wild birds nearby. Avid wildlife refuge visitors shared their excitement with local officials, while others wandered through the new building’s halls to escape the frosty air. Those involved in the project’s fruition shared their thoughts with the crowd.

Among those celebrating was Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R- Battle Ground, who played a key role in establishing the refuge’s newest addition.

“This is, for me, the bread and butter of this job,” she told the crowd, gesturing to the facility and surrounding habitat. “It’s getting to move projects over that makes such a huge difference in a community. Maybe it doesn’t even make the news nationally, but this is the stuff that I think makes a good representative.”

For years, Herrera Beutler and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell requested federal funding to aid the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge’s five-year plan to make facility improvements, including the development of its administrative building, which began in October 2020.

Now, visitors can enter the facility to ask staff questions, buy national passes and learn more about the surrounding environment. It is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Ridgefield Mayor Jennifer Lindsay said finding money was the main hurdle in completing the refuge’s facility projects and was the reason its construction was postponed. To illustrate, its costs neared $14 million — the same sum as the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual construction budget for projects nationwide.

It was thought that the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge secured all its funding for the administrative building in 2018, but devastation following the eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano that year took precedence.

“Our funding quite literally went up in smoke,” Lindsay said.

More than a building

Jim Maul, Friends of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge president, said the process has taken “as long as the Columbia River Crossing is going to take,” yet it remains as important as when the initiative was originally proposed.

“We want to get people out to experience a connection with nature,” he said. “Refuges aren’t parks, they are very important in protecting places for wildlife to live and thrive.”

Ridgefield’s refuge encompasses 5,200 acres of tall grass, dense forests and wetlands along the lower Columbia River at the western tip of Clark County. Columbian white-tailed deer, sandhill cranes and horned lark are only a few examples of wildlife that wander the expanse.

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Cowlitz Tribal Council Chair Patty Kinswa-Gaiser said the refuge will serve as optimal grounds for gathering with new and old friends.

Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, described the significance in connecting with the land’s heritage.

“Sometimes when you visit the refuge and you see that light fog out there, that’s our ancestors traveling in that fog,” he said. “Know that they’re proud of what’s going on here.”

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge’s administrative building is only one element in its master plan, as it is slated to have an adjoining community nature center.

Project leaders expect that the development, which will require an additional $6 million, will be fully funded in the coming year. Other plans focus on creating new walking trails, sidewalks and restrooms.

The city of Ridgefield, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and project partners believe improvements to the refuge will boost the local economy by reeling in more visitors to the habitat, subsequently increasing traffic to other businesses in the area.

Herrera Beutler said she’d be among those frequently visiting the grasslands in the future. In a sense, she continued, celebrating the ribbon-cutting is a fitting way to conclude her congressional tenure, a position she has held since 2010.

“It’s a physical reminder of something I’ve accomplished for the region — a place I can visit with my family,” she said.

Columbian staff writer