Tuesday, May 24, 2022
May 24, 2022

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Steigerwald refuge gains more trails, wetlands, wildlife

By , Columbian staff writer
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7 Photos
Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, left, chats with Juliette Fernandez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as they check out a view of the Columbia River from a new viewpoint at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Monday afternoon. The refuge reopened to the public on May 1.
Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, left, chats with Juliette Fernandez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as they check out a view of the Columbia River from a new viewpoint at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Monday afternoon. The refuge reopened to the public on May 1. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — When Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge reopened May 1, visitors were likely surprised to see all the changes that have taken place. But the crew members working to remove an old aqueduct, fish ladder and water diversion infrastructure along Gibbons Creek had one of the biggest surprises.

The creek was full of juvenile lamprey.

According to Chris Collins, program lead for Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, nearly 45,000 of the bizarre-looking “vampire fish,” as they’re often called, were temporarily removed from the creek.

“You go through a process where you rescue all the fish before you dewater and deconstruct the stream. We knew there were lamprey here, but we were quite surprised by how productive the stream is,” Collins said.

The Steigerwald refuge was closed in August 2019 to allow the U.S. Forest Service, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, Port of Camas-Washougal and other partners to undertake restoration of 965 acres of habit. The $25 million project was the largest of its kind along the Columbia River.

Gone are the wide-open grassy areas, straight trail and old levees. The refuge’s 90,000 annual visitors are now greeted with more wetlands, a longer trail system, new bridges, interpretive features — and a much greater diversity of wildlife.

In Gibbons Creek, “you’ll find Coho salmon, you’ll find steelhead, you’ll find a small number of cutthroat trout and you’ll find an abundance of lamprey,” Collins said.

“Just because we have so much more open water at the refuge than we used to, now there are so many opportunities for nesting birds and a much larger variety of waterfowl,” said Juliette Fernandez, project leader for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

On the first day the refuge was reopened, Fernandez said, visitors reported seeing a wide variety of birds including purple martin, killdeer, herons, geese, ducks and others.

“There was a little killdeer mother over by the trail that was yelling at everybody walking by,” Fernandez said.

Levees reconfigured

The restoration project included a complete reconfiguration of the existing levee system, reconnecting the refuge and Gibbons Creek to the lower Columbia River. Two miles of existing levees were removed.

In their place are two new setback levees that either maintain or improve the level of flood protection for the area. The Port of Camas-Washougal and the city of Camas will also have greater protection from floods because of the new levees, Collins said.

The restoration project gives visitors new opportunities to explore.

“The trail system is longer, and it’s also a lot more diverse. Instead of just walking along the river, the trail now weaves into and out of the refuge and crosses a couple of channels with new bridges,” Collins added.

Removing invasive plant species was also important to the project partners. Around 250 acres of native riparian forest were planted with 500,000 plantings of willow, cottonwood, spirea, dogwood and wapato, a tuber that was vital to the Chinook Indians.

While most of the plantings were done by local contractors, the refuge also brought 2,000 local students to help with nearly 10,000 of the plantings.

“That was super exciting, because it really got the community involved,” Collins said.

The soil used to build the new levees was sourced from the refuge, so that “it not only generates the right kind of soil to build the levees but also generates beneficial habitats,” Collins said.

By the numbers

A look at remaking the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge: $25 million to restore 965 acres of habitat with 500,000 native plants in 265 acres of riparian forest; remove 2 miles of existing levee while adding 2 miles of walking trails benefitting wildlife, including 45,000 lamprey in Gibbons Creek, and the refuge’s 90,000 annual visitors.

But not all the work is done. The refuge will need to close for one month over the summer to allow crews to finish a final stretch of trail work that was delayed by the winter and spring’s heavy rains.

About 85 percent of the funding for the project came from the Bonneville Power Administration as part of its efforts to offset impacts of dam operations. The remaining funds came from the Washington Department of Ecology, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bonneville Environmental Foundation (which is separate from BPA), Collins said.

The Steigerwald Lake refuge is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which acquired the original section of the refuge in the 1980s. It’s part of the larger Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which also includes the Franz Lake, Pierce and Ridgefield national wildlife refuges.

Public gets first look

A grand opening ceremony with guest speakers and project partners was held Saturday to celebrate the refuge’s reopening and completion (nearly) of the habitat restoration. But Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky from Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership said the decision was made to open the refuge a week earlier to give visitors a chance to see the changes first.

“The logic behind that was, who is the refuge for? Is it for the dignitaries and figureheads? Do they get to be the first ones to walk the new trails, or is it the public who are going to be the long-term stewards and who love this place?” Zimmer-Stucky said.

Fernandez said the expectation was that visitors would begin to trickle in over the first few days the refuge was reopened. However, she noted the parking lot — which is 50 percent bigger than it was previously — was already packed the first day.

“The turnout was amazing,” Fernandez said. “It was really neat to see them be so inspired and excited to see all the wildlife.”

Those who haven’t had a chance to visit the refuge yet can at least get a taste of it. Sort of. Washougal’s 54-40 Brewery launched its newest IPA called Reconnection Ale in honor of the project.

“It has the tasting notes of overripe peach and apricot; it’s hazy, not too bitter, a very nice tasting IPA,” Zimmer-Stucky said.

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