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Refuge plan sparks excitement, worry, anger

Fish and Wildlife Service proceeding with restoration of Wapato Lake area


Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO: U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE - Tundra swans dot the surface of flooded fields that once held the year-round Wapato Lake, a premier stop for migrating birds on the Pacific flyway. A restoration project could recreate the year-round lake.After seven years of buying land from willing sellers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has enough acreage in the right location to recreate Wapato Lake.

FWS owns slightly more than 800 acres within the Wapato Lake unit of the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge. Almost all those acres are contiguous and cover the historic lakebed, which stretches along the east side of Highway 47 from the Yamhill County border on the south to Gaston Road on the north. (No, FWS would not flood Gaston’s ball fields or fire station, which remain city property.)

A single unwilling seller still owns 40 acres smack dab in the middle of the would-be lake, although that wouldn’t necessarily stop FWS from filling the lakebed, said Pete Schmidt, a wildlife biologist with the agency. “We can work around it,” Schmidt said, possibly negotiating an easement or diking off the unsold property.

But recreating the year-round lake will be only one of several options for restoring the wetlands in the 4,310-acre Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge. And nothing will happen this year. FWS officials are still gathering public comments to help them create a restoration plan.

At an open house in the Gaston High School library Tuesday, Nov. 18, refuge-related specialists manned a variety of stations to take questions and comments on everything from hydrology to archaeology to wildlife to the refuge-planning process.

More than 100 people attended the two-hour event, including an Audubon Society member who asked about bringing the Christmas Bird Count to the refuge and some Ducks Unlimited members who support preserving this stretch of the Pacific Flyway for migrating waterfowl.

In its weekly surveys, Schmidt said, FWS typically finds several thousand ducks and geese around the Wapato Lake area, starting in fall when they migrate from colder climes to winter in Oregon, through spring when they fly back north.

One survey of a single week in December 2010 recorded 69,571 waterfowl, Schmidt said, including more than 66,000 northern pintails on the flooded lakebed itself.

“I have also counted nearly 800 tundra swans on the lake,” he said.

Schmidt said FWS will start preparing a “hunt plan” soon, although the refuge wouldn’t open for hunting until 2016 at the earliest.

Overall, comments from open house guests ranged mostly from positive to indifferent, said FWS Restoration Biologist Curt Mykut. “Nothing real negative.”

That might be because some of the restoration’s strongest opponents stormed out.

Tom Gamble, director of Forest Grove’s Park and Recreation Department, was in the hall when several different groups of “hopping mad” people left the library, apparently upset that there wasn’t some kind of formal presentation that would allow them to express their concerns about the project, he said.

“They don’t want our input. We’re just hearing their dog-and-pony show,” Gamble remembers hearing them say.

Of those who stayed to register their concerns, Schmidt said, some people worried about their property being condemned and acquired by the government through the eminent domain process—something FWS has pledged not to do. Land is being bought only from willing sellers at fair-market value, said Refuge Manager Erin Holmes.

Other people, who irrigate crops with water from the three creeks surrounding the lakebed, worry the restoration will somehow block or impede their irrigation use, said Schmidt.

Just like all those irrigators, Holmes said, FWS too is now a customer of the Tualatin Valley Irrigation District, the agency responsible for getting water to its members. “I am committed to working with TVID to help them develop solutions to insure their customers get water,” she said.

One man didn’t like how Washington County loses tax revenue when tax-exempt government agencies buy land that previous owners were paying taxes on.

But Holmes pointed out that the federal Revenue Sharing Act requires FWS to partially offset that loss by giving money to the county each year in lieu of property taxes.

Steve Wick worried about mosquitoes. Wick, who lives just east of Gaston, referred to a problem down in Bandon after FWS restored a saltwater marsh at what one critic called the “Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge & Mosquito Preserve.”

The area’s mosquito population exploded after the 2011 restoration, driving away campers and golfers and keeping residents inside, according to an Associated Press story, which described FWS as “acknowledging that it never took into account the potential for increasing mosquito numbers around homes and the city of Bandon.”

Holmes said FWS has already contacted the Washington County Mosquito Control program, which will participate in the restoration process to forestall such mosquito problems.

Another issue people may not be aware of is noise, said Wick, remembering times when the flooded lake drew so many quacking, honking waterfowl that he and his wife, Carol, could hear it at their home a mile away.

But other parts of the restoration appealed to Wick, such as the increased opportunity to hunt waterfowl.

He also liked the idea of the lake being adjacent to a future “rails for trails” path and for other trails or attractions that could draw people to Gaston and improve the city’s economy and vitality.

“It could be beautiful,” said Carol.

“If it’s done properly, it has great potential,” Wick agreed. “If it’s not done properly, there could be problems.”

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