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Metro shows off secrets of Chehalem Ridge park

Planning and public input to start this winter; construction possible in 2017 or 2018

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: JOHN MYERS - One of three tour groups admires the scenery from a west-looking viewpoint at Metros Chehalem Ridge Natural Area. Earlier, they visited another viewpoint to the north, which features Mt. St. Helens and other snow-capped peaks on clear days.When Rod Wojtanik finally reached the Chehalem Ridge viewpoint, he paused and looked — not at the spectacular patchwork of forests, fields and nurseries blanketing the valley far below, or at the Coast Range looming hazy on the other side.

No, Wojtanik waited and watched as the 30 people in his tour group caught up to him and first glimpsed the view.

“This is one of the things I love about working for Metro,” said Wojtanik, interim parks planning manager for the Portland area’s regional government. “Taking people to sites that are in public ownership and hearing their reactions: ‘Wow.’ ‘This is awesome.’ ‘We need a zipline.’”

The presumably 1,000-foot zipline down to the valley floor — or perhaps a five-mile line across the valley to a tree in the Coast Range — was the joking suggestion of Metro Councilor Sam Chase, one of about 90 people who toured part of the Chehalem Ridge Natural Area just east of Gaston last Thursday, July 9.

It was a rare look at the still-undeveloped park.

Liability questions probably rule out the zipline, but Wojtanik said Metro is considering equestrian and off-road cycling activities among others. “One person even asked about paragliding,” he told his group.

Residents of the three-county Metro area will be able to weigh in on design and development of the site during the planning process, which Principal Regional Planner Dave Elkin said will begin this winter and last about a year and a half. Among other things, the public will help decide which of the many spectacular viewpoints will get picnic tables, viewing platforms or other amenities.

Elkin hopes construction can begin in 2017 or 2018.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JOHN MYERS - Jonathan Soll, science division manager for Metros Natural Areas Program, talks to Metro  during a tour last Thursday of Metros Chehalem Ridge Natural Area east of Gaston.

Big, dramatic vistas — including a view to the north that features several snow-capped peaks — are just one attraction of the 1,200-acre property, which Metro bought from Stimson Lumber Co. in 2010 for $6.1 million. It remains the largest and most expensive purchase in the history of the agency’s bond-funded Natural Areas program. (Another 100 acres has since been added.)

Water-quality protection is another benefit, given the site’s 26 seasonal and five permanent streams that all eventually empty into the Tualatin River, which provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of customers across Washington County.

Stimson’s original plan was for the property to be developed into large-lot, luxury homes, which could have threatened that water supply and perhaps the stability of the ridge, some worried.

Instead, the property is beginning to look like a diverse forest, home to coyotes, deer, elk and even bear, with 41 documented bird species, said Jonathan Soll, science division manager for Metro’s Natural Areas Program.

Metro scientists expect plant and animal diversity to increase as the site continues recovering from its previous role as a tree farm, which featured an army of young, small Douglas firs all planted eight feet apart — so close together that when a Metro scientist ducked under the branches to escape a downpour on the trail, she couldn’t feel a drop.

Since then, Metro contractors have been working to thin the trees from 500 per acre down to 200 or 100 per acre, sending many of the logs to local mills, where they have so far provided enough income to cover all Metro’s expenses for the site, including consultants, road-building and more.Forest Grove City Councilor Malynda Wenzl and her 4-year-old son, Cullen, were two of the 90-some people who toured Metros Chehalem Ridge.

The rest of the chopped tree trunks are either placed in streams to help restore fish habitat or piled in groups of five or six to replicate the “nurse log” role which in healthy old-growth forests is played by giant fallen trees that provide homes for mice, squirrels and other small creatures, as well as nutrients for new seedlings as the logs decompose.

Meanwhile, the newly thinned forest lets in light to encourage new plant species. With new room to grow, ferns, shrubs and flowers are filling what used to be a sterile, vacant space beneath the trees.

“It’s amazing how fast things come back,” Soll said. “In 100 years, this place will be incredible.” Even in 20 years, it will provide valuable habitat and recreational benefits, partly due to its huge size.

At roughly 1,200 acres, the site is comparable in size to Hagg Lake, which sits six miles to the west, and to the popular Oxbow Regional Park east of Portland.

“It’s a place you can get lost in,” said Soll. And although that might be true literally, he was speaking more of that restorative, spiritual “lostness” sought by so many of the metro area’s work-stressed residents. NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: JOHN MYERS - One of three tour groups admires the scenery from a west-looking viewpoint at Metros Chehalem Ridge Natural Area. Earlier, they visited another viewpoint to the north, which features Mt. St. Helens and other snow-capped peaks on clear days.

That’s one of the many values of a “big place,” Soll said, explaining why Metro jumped at the chance to buy that many acres being sold in one contiguous chunk. “You just can’t duplicate 1,200 acres with twelve 100-acre sites.”

Chehalem Ridge Natural Area is closed weekdays due to an ongoing tree-thinning project. While open to the public on weekends, the site has no official parking area.