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News / Clark County News

Clark County to buy 125 acres along East Fork Lewis River as part of habitat restoration project

Land includes nine abandoned pit mines, ponds, marshes, wetlands

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 22, 2024, 6:04am
7 Photos
Curtis Helm of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership wades carefully through waist-deep water while conducting an amphibian study as part of the fish habitat restoration efforts on East Fork of the Lewis River on Monday.
Curtis Helm of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership wades carefully through waist-deep water while conducting an amphibian study as part of the fish habitat restoration efforts on East Fork of the Lewis River on Monday. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — Years of planning for a habitat restoration project along the East Fork Lewis River moved closer to becoming a reality this week.

The Clark County Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the purchase of nearly 125 acres of ponds, wetlands and marshes and nine abandoned pit mines known as the Ridgefield Pits. The land lies about 4 miles upstream from La Center and is one of the last pieces of property needed to begin habitat restoration work that will stretch from Daybreak Park on the eastern edge to the Ridgefield Pits on the west.

Funding for the $625,000 purchase will come from the county’s Legacy Lands program, which targets properties for restoration and preservation.

“There were previous studies done that show this would benefit the watershed,” said Denielle Cowley of the county’s parks and lands division.

Long ago, before mining and housing came to the area, the path of the East Fork Lewis River was far different. The river had numerous tributaries rather than a single main channel. During floods, those tributaries helped disperse water across the river bottom and marsh lands.

But over time, many of the tributaries have disappeared as dikes and berms were built to protect mining operations and other development. Major flooding in 1995-1996 permanently changed the course of the river, filling in the abandoned mining pits.

Since then, salmon and steelhead no longer spawn there. Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, public and legislative affairs manager for Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, said the goal is to restore the river habitat to as close to its original state as possible.

One task that must be completed is measuring and evaluating the existing wildlife — in the river, on the land and in the air — in the project area.

A small team of researchers from Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership spent Monday wading through calf-high reed canary grass while avoiding blackberry brambles and beaver dams to look for frog egg masses.

“Mainly, you’re going to see three species. The bullfrog, which is a non-native species. The native species are the northern red-legged frog — they like the streams, the edges — and then we’ve got the chorus frog. Those are pretty common up and down the West Coast,” said Kari Dupler, principal restoration ecologist for Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

Dupler said the egg masses are typically found attached to grasses and shrubs in the marshlands, where there’s little water flow.

Looking for the egg masses involves exactly what you might expect — “very carefully moving through the shallow water on the edges and looking at the grasses and the shrubs,” Dupler said.

“They’re finding a bunch of salamander egg masses, too,” said Paul Kolp, restoration program lead for Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

Kolp said the work the team is doing now is important to the project’s success.

“This is part of us doing our due diligence to make sure that we’re accounting for what is on the property,” Kolp said.

Kolp pointed to shallow ponds hidden by willow trees and tall grasses. Those ponds are great places for juvenile salmon, he said. Despite being connected by a culvert, Kolp said little water is actually flowing between the ponds.

“The idea is to make this passable for fish,” Kolp said. “It supports lots of critters — mosquitoes, juvenile fish, salamanders, frogs.”

Why is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the lower Columbia River working on the East Fork Lewis River?

“Once upon a time, the Columbia River would have backed up all the way onto this site. Because of the Bonneville Dam, it doesn’t anymore,” Kolp said.

Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership refocused its efforts on the East Fork Lewis River project in 2022 following the successful completion of its major habitat restoration project at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Washougal.

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The nonprofit received $7.74 million from the state Recreation and Conservation Office that same year, with about $7.07 million slated for the East Fork Lewis River project.

In April 2023, the project received $7.5 million from the federal government. The nonprofit group also received $5.5 million from the state’s Floodplains by Design program that same month.

“This year, we are working very closely with our partners at Clark County to complete essential tasks like permitting, surveys and sourcing thousands of logs that will be used to create floodplain habitat,” Zimmer-Stucky said. “The construction bid for East Fork Lewis River Reconnection Project will go out this year so that we can take full advantage of the in-water work windows in 2025.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.