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News / Life / Clark County Life

Two small forest preserves show what Clark County farmland used to be

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 12, 2022, 6:02am
9 Photos
There's no parking lot for the Salmon-Morgan Creeks Natural Area, just a couple of dead-end street access points. Be kind to the neighbors when you visit.
There's no parking lot for the Salmon-Morgan Creeks Natural Area, just a couple of dead-end street access points. Be kind to the neighbors when you visit. (Scott Hewitt/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

BRUSH PRAIRIE — If a tree falls in the forest but nobody hears it, can it still be reported by your local newspaper?

Yes. While exploring the Lauretta Norene Forest Preserve, take a careful look at a big trunk in the southeastern section that looks freshly toppled across the trail. Many large and small holes reveal where birds, insects and other critters have gone probing for life-sustaining leftovers.

A few miles northeast of here, the deeper, denser Salmon-Morgan Creeks Natural Area offers more examples of nature doing one of the things it does best: recycling.

The Salmon-Morgan Creeks Natural Area and the Lauretta Norene Forest Preserve are examples of what the “forest primeval” might have been like in Clark County before settlers turned our central flatlands into farmland. Because of some long-ago logging and other human impacts, they don’t quite qualify as old-growth forests but can accurately be called “second growth.”

On the web

Whatever you call them, each site is a small, contained patch of deep woods, offering easy (if muddy) hiking among trees at every age and stage, from new sprouts to grand giants to decaying logs that help keep forest life cycling along.

These sites are deemed natural areas, not neighborhood parks, but both are tucked into central Clark County neighborhoods on dead-end roads. If you’re in the mood for some deep-forest exploration — and sheer awe — without having to travel far or hike hard, Salmon-Morgan and Lauretta Norene are right next door.

Two creeks

On a sunny spring morning, the Salmon-Morgan Creeks Natural Area gleams with sunlight filtering down through a thick, complicated, mossy canopy. A hiker’s sense of surprise and majesty might be tempered only slightly by the need to keep an eye on the occasionally gloppy path.

To reach this 81-acre island of nearly raw nature, visitors must nose their way along the quiet streets of an upscale neighborhood adjacent to the Cedars on Salmon Creek Golf Course (between Hockinson and Battle Ground). Find your way to Northeast 152nd Avenue and drive north to the T intersection. Take a right on Northeast 181st Street, which bends right, then left on 159th Avenue, right on 183rd Street and left on dead-end 161st Avenue.

Be mindful that you’re surrounded by private property and pedestrians as you drive in and park. There’s an alternate entry farther west on 183rd Street, but 161st Avenue offers a proper welcome with a pair of informational kiosks and maps, one of which provides a guide to the Salmon-Morgan’s grandest, most noteworthy trees and even supplies their trunk diameters in inches.

Western red cedars reign supreme here, and several trunks have diameters in the 50-plus-inch range — well over 4 feet thick. The natural area also encompasses grand and Douglas firs, Western hemlocks, Pacific yews and, according to one informational panel, a single Oregon white oak whose presence here is “testament to the species’ ability to thrive” in spots where it’s usually crowded out by taller, faster growing trees. (White oaks are more often found where conditions are tougher overall, whether much drier or much wetter.) Red alder trees cluster in the northwest corner of the site.

“The trees here are big, and the forest is lush with a carpet generally void of the dreaded invasive species that have all too often taken over more urban settings,” trail expert Craig Romano writes in his “Urban Trails Vancouver Washington” book. “Its stand of mature cedars is one of the finest in Clark County.”

Two loops and a connecting trail add up to almost 2 miles of hiking. Viewpoints overlook Morgan Creek and its confluence with Salmon Creek. You’ll note plenty of ancient stumps in this forest, which are evidence of selective logging here by German immigrant Louis Lieser in 1886.

“The second growth that has reclaimed this property is now well over a century old and beginning to develop old-growth characteristics,” Romano writes. According to Clark County, the whole site is within a state-designated biodiversity area and is a key corridor for wildlife.

According to the county, 87 housing lots with necessary roadways were proposed for the site in the 1990s. That proposal eventually died, and local residents convinced the county to set the site aside in 2006 through its conservation futures fund.

Today, the Salmon-Morgan Creeks site is dense with diverse tree life — and even tree death, which you can see in the rich nurse logs that feed life anew. On a recent morning, the canopy was positively noisy with birdsong.

Family gifts

If you want to make it an urban forest tour, your next stop should be the Lauretta Norene and Groth Forest Preserve, nearby in Brush Prairie. It’s the result of family donations supplemented by county conservation-land purchases.

Signs at the two entrances tell different chapters of the site’s backstory (without connecting them). At the northeastern entrance, a sign explains that the Lauretta Norene Forest Preserve was created in 1992 in honor of Norene by her daughter, Laura Norene Minkler, a local schoolteacher who loved taking her students to explore this forest. But at the southwestern entrance, a fading sign says the Groth Nature Area was created in 1997 by members of the Groth and Troxel families.

Today’s 84-acre forest preserve combines both sites (and the family names Norene, Minkler, Groth and Troxel) by linking northern and southern hiking loops.

The obvious way to approach is along dead-end Northeast 149th Street where there’s a convenient parking lot, but then you’ll have to walk gate-to-gate through the fenced Lucky Dog Park. If you’d rather not deal with excited off-leash pooches, approach from the south and park on dead-end Northeast 97th Avenue just past Laurin Middle School (but not north of the no-parking sign).

From here you’ll approach the forest by taking a pleasant path across a meadow and into the woods, unless you turn right and stroll the two-track path around them to take in big views of the mountains to the east. Follow this path as it turns north for additional routes into the forest.

You won’t find any maps or tree information here, but this island of towering trees amidst gentle, rolling meadows feels more compact and less remote than the Salmon-Morgan Creeks Natural Area. You’re likely to run into dog walkers in the woods or on the perimeter trail.

A years-old county report says the Norene/Groth site could eventually become part of a larger county or regional park but there are no plans for that now. Meanwhile, this little-known nugget of forest abides.