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A whopper of a wetlands

Federal officials eye 36 acres south of Forest Grove for possible Wapato Wildlife Refuge
by: Chase Allgood,

First of two-parts

At first glance, the sprawling Wapato lakebed south of Forest Grove doesn't look much like a prospective wildlife refuge.

Cascading waterfalls, fields brimming with wildflowers and towering stands of old-growth Sitka spruce are nowhere in sight. The basin appears to be an ordinary stretch of farmland, crisscrossed with dikes, drainage ditches and geometric tracts of corn, wheat, clover and other crops.

In the mind's eye of some federal wildlife officials, however, the lakebed and surrounding areas could become a 4,300-acre sanctuary for native plants, migrating birds and other creatures.

By restoring the basin's natural pattern of flooding, the service hopes to return Wapato Lake to its original, life-sustaining wetland ecology.

'We've always had an interest in it from the biological perspective. Historically, it's had a very high number of wintering waterfowl, especially the tundra swan, compared to the rest of the Willamette Valley,' said Ralph Webber, refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 'It's one of the rarest types of wetland in the Willamette Valley.'

Currently, it's still unclear whether or not the project will be undertaken. Webber and other USFWS officials have studied several possible options for the refuge and recently submitted their proposal to the agency's federal headquarters in Washington D.C.

If the plan gets a thumbs up, the agency would immediately begin buying land from voluntary sellers within the refuge boundary - they cannot condemn the land.

Finally, once they acquire enough property, restoration projects can begin.

Some of the farmers included in the boundary of the Wapato Lake Unit - the proposed addition to the Tualatin Valley River National Refuge near Sherwood - are skeptical of the agency's plans.

To them, setting aside more than six square miles for wildlife habitat will make life difficult for farmers, drain taxpayer money and waste tillable land.

'I'm not real happy about the whole thing,' said Douglas Freeman, who grows hay and grass seed on 36 acres within the proposed refuge. 'I think it's nonsensical.'

Despite such misgivings, Webber predicts buying land in the most crucial areas of the basin won't pose much of an obstacle. He points out that more than a dozen landowners actually petitioned the agency to evaluate Wapato Lake for inclusion into the National Wildlife Refuge System.

'If we move forward with the project, I anticipate we'd able to move forward (with acquisitions) in the historic lakebed fairly quickly,' Webber said.

That 'if,' however, is a big one. The Pacific Regional Office of the USFWS compiled its studies and sent a recommendation to launch the program to Dale Hall, the agency's director, in July. It's anyone's guess as to when he gives the Wapato Lake Unit the green light - if he does at all.

'There's no way to know,' said Ben Harrison, branch chief of refuge planning at the USFWS Portland regional office, adding that the proposed refuge is currently being analyzed for its biological merit and financial feasibility. 'It's working its way through our Washington office to the director… It could be next month or it could be six months' before they reach a decision, he said.

Even if Hall approves the Wapato Lake Unit, it would likely be a long time before actual restoration projects would take place within the lakebed.

Before the USFWS can begin repairing the basin's ecosystem, it must first accumulate enough land for the efforts to have a significant environmental impact without compromising the viability of surrounding farmland.

A big aspect of restoring the Wapato lakebed involves flooding, so it would be difficult to recreate the wetlands without installing infrastructure to prevent the water from damaging crops on adjoining fields owned by landowners who don't want to sell.

That group includes Alfred Spry, who raises corn, clover and wheat in the basin.

'As long as I own it, they won't be on my property,' Spry said. 'I own a couple hundred acres of it, and it's not going to them.'

Farmers like Spry oppose the Wapato Lake Unit on several levels. From a broad perspective, they see it as a waste of federal dollars; the restoration is expected to cost nearly $7 million, and this doesn't even include the cost of purchasing the land.

Locally, they fear weeds from the unfarmed land will invade their fields and pastures and they're concerned the refuge will affect their water rights.

Finally, they just don't see much value for the surrounding community.

'It's not going to be a good deal for the people,' said Spry. 'It's going to be a mosquito haven.'

Selling farmland just to see it swallowed by Mother Nature is objectionable to farmers whose families have managed the land for generations, or who hope to pass it down to their progeny.

Douglas Freeman said it would make no sense for him to sell his acreage and relocate elsewhere when he's been perfecting his current agricultural operation since 1970.

'I just don't want to get out of farming. Ideally, we'd like to leave the property to our kids and have them own it,' he said. 'We're just now getting it to where we like it.'

While Spry and Freeman doggedly want to hold onto their land, others are desperate to leave it behind. Many are retirees who were badly affected by flooding in the 1990s and the plummeting price of onions, which were once the region's staple crop.

Ronald Bates isn't motivated to sell for environmental reasons - his family is just sick of tending flood-prone land that can't grow winter crops.

'We're getting tired of that over there. Let someone else mess with it,' he said, adding that it's been hard to find interested buyers other than the USFWS. 'I don't care who buys it, just as long as we get rid of it.'

Even if few growers share Bates' sentiment right now, time is on the side of the USFWS. Since establishing the Tualatin Valley River National Refuge in 1992, the agency has bought less than half of the land within the 3,000 acre boundary, and only a fraction of that is actively being restored.

But in the world of national refuges, this progression has been lightning-quick, said Webber, who manages the refuge. Once established, it literally takes an act of Congress to eliminate a refuge, meaning the USFWS would have decades to get reluctant landowners or their successors to change their minds.

'Realistically, it could take 20 years to have half of the refuge acquired and restored,' he said. 'Twenty years is a very short period of time when you look at the long term.'

Next week - The science of wetland restoration.