A walk on the wildlife side

The Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is growing by leaps and bounds
by: Jaime Valdez, JAIME VALDEZ/The Times
GIVING NATURE A NUDGE — Norm Penner, president of the Friends of the Refuge, points out landmarks in the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, where the visitors’ center is under construction in the background.

If you haven't yet visited the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, now might be the perfect time.

It's getting bigger and better as the U.S. Department of the Interior/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expands the boundaries, construction continues on the 6,000-square-foot visitors' center and more wildlife returns to the restored wetlands and meadows.

At the time the refuge opened to great fanfare in June 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owned or managed 1,358 acres, many of which were converted from agricultural use, including row crops and a dairy farm, back into natural areas.

Sections of 450 acres are open to the public and include trails, a river overlook, a wetlands observation deck, a wildlife photo blind and an interpretive area.

Recently Norm Penner, president of the Friends of the Refuge, walked around the refuge to take advantage of a crisp but sunny early spring day.

On his mind was the news that the refuge boundary is being expanded by 4,310 acres with the inclusion of land around Wapato Lake near Forest Grove.

'It's located along the Tualatin River and historically was a seasonal wetland,' Penner said. 'In the '30s, farmers diked and drained the area. Before that, it used to attract tundra swan flying between Alaska and Texas. But we did see a dozen or so here two weeks ago, and the species is coming back - there are more every year.

'We're seeing a big change in the patterns of migratory birds, and Wapato should grow back and start attracting more wildlife. We have fairly regular visits from bald eagles.'

The refuge acquires land through donations and willing sellers, and with the inclusion of the Wapato Lake Unit, landowners with priority habitats within the unit's boundary who are interested in selling or donating land to Fish and Wildlife will have the opportunity to pursue these options.

The National Migratory Fund contributed $800,000 toward the purchase of land around Wapato, and the Water-Land Conservation Fund also contributed money.

'The Friends have been working with Sen. (David) Wu and now Sen. (Gordon) Smith has agreed to help too,' Penner said. 'The longer we wait, the higher the prices will be. It's important that the government do something now. The Friends have been advocating by sending e-mails to people.'

Heading north from the visitors' center into the oak savannah, Penner pointed out 'well over' 500 oak trees that were planted four years ago by the Friends and appear to be thriving. 'We've lost very few,' he said.

Battling encroaching blackberries is an ongoing problem, according to Penner. 'It takes three to four years to totally eradicate them,' he said.

Most of the water in the refuge comes from Chicken Creek, according to Penner.

'We're trying to replicate what used to happen here with the changes in the seasons and water levels,' he added. 'In the winters, the migratory waterfowl come to rest and eat. If they're startled by people, it interrupts their stay here. That's why we don't allow jogging - it's all part of a carefully thought-out plan.'

In the distance Penner pointed out a rainforest, which is a hatchery for wild songbirds in the spring.

In the summer, when the water level is lower, people can make a full loop around a huge lake on a trail that is 3½ to 4 miles long. 'There's more limited access in the winter,' Penner said.

'We've had excellent visitor counts. We have a group of volunteers called rovers who come out on their own schedule and report back to us on the number of people they see and also give us wildlife reports.'

The formation of the Friends of the Refuge started in Sherwood in the early 1990s when a group of people got the idea of having a wildlife refuge in the area and contacted Fish and Wildlife, according to Penner.

'A couple donated 12 acres, and Fish and Wildlife came out and surveyed the area and drew up a boundary,' he said. 'They appropriated money to buy more land, and the Friends incorporated. We tore out old buildings, drain pipes and non-native plants. Once the cattle were taken away, native plants started coming back on their own.

'This refuge is being provided with some exceptional attention (from the government). The Friends are committed to keeping the visitors' center open.'

Penner is concerned that while there are enough funds to construct the center, there might not be enough money to staff it.

The center has been designed to fit into the natural area around it, and it includes an information center, exhibit space, a multi-purpose room for seminars and workshops, a learning lab for students, classrooms, a viewing area and a gift shop.

Some of the Friends, who currently number nearly 400 members, are planning what items to sell in the gift shop, and Penner hopes that proceeds from sales will help pay for staffing the visitors' center.