April Hill watershed awash in new possibilities
After nearly of decade of fundraising, planning and construction, the April Hill Park Watershed has re-opened to the public with a new feature: a state-of-the-art, elevated walkway through about 800 feet of a silty, soggy stretch of wetland.
Jill Gaddis has been involved with the Maplewood Neighborhood Association board and started the Friends of the April Hill Park in 2006. She first took up the mantle of project manager for watershed restoration when she started noticing the effects of pedestrian traffic on the fragile throughway.
"My husband and I had gone on walks and we said, 'This is beautiful, but it's being degraded because of all the activity,'" Gaddis said. "Just simply walking through the wetland was degrading it — the trails became a creek."
With the help of employees from Metro, Portland Parks and Recreation and the Bureau of Environmental services, Gaddis secured a little more than half a million dollars in funding to create a walkway that now hovers over top the wetland area.
Before, access to the watershed meant trudging down a steep hill and slopping through silt to get to Southwest 59th Street. Planners rerouted the trail to one with a softer decline that feeds into a long walkway and bridge.
With the construction recently completed, Friends of April Hill organized an unveiling on Sunday, April 9. Dozens of community members — beckoned, perhaps, by the Robert Gray Marching Band, which opened the celebration — flocked to the park to enjoy educational games, ethnobotany talks and the first official walkthrough of the renovated site.
Gaddis said the goal of the painstaking project was to balance environmental preservation with human access to the delicate ecosystem, tucked behind the urban park in the heart of Maplewood.
"We wanted to have something that was safe for people to walk in and safe for the environment," Gaddis said. "We call it the wetland protection project. Because the soils are silt, they erode so easily."
Gaddis said that the elevated walkway will also help to keep the wetland's creek clean. The tributary eventually drains into Fanno Creek.
Gaddis chose the salamander as a symbol to represent the project. When it's functioning properly, the watershed serves as a maturation ground for amphibians — and indeed, when you walk down into the wetland from the bustling urban park, you're already confronted with a cacophony of croaks from hidden frogs.
"(Portland Parks and Recreation) drew up a master plan in 2009 based on the need, and what they discovered … because of the draining of the wetland from the trails, is that the salamanders and newts were not maturing," Gaddis said. "So this, where the water's staying there, they can grow to maturing before they enter the forest."
The bulk of the money to pay for the materials and construction of the walkway (engineering was donated by Otak Inc.) came from a Parks and Recreation fund for new projects. The Friends group also secured around $80,000 from Metro and a few thousand dollars from the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.
The materials were the most expensive part of the project. The decking is made of ultra-durable pultruded fiberglass; Gaddis said the group was also careful to pick wood for the supports that wouldn't leak poisons into the delicate soil. Even the concrete blocks holding the walkway's columns — called diamond piers — are minimally invasive and require little to no soil removal to install.
"You're paying up front, but you're not paying for maintenance behind — so that's the good thing," Gaddis said.
Education and access for all
Members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde also participated in the April 9 park celebration. David Harrelson, Greg Archuleta and Chris Rempel opened a series of speeches by performing a traditional blessing song.
"It's an honor to be invited today," Harrelson said afterwards. "Restoration programs like this really honor our people."
Archuleta offered ethnobotany tours of the site to teach visitors about the importance of native plants and trees for the cultural practices of local tribes.
Gaddis welcomed educational and contextual insights, and said she hopes this project will facilitate learning for all ages.
"When we built this, we wanted to build it large enough so that a classroom could be on that observation deck, and it's also good for birders," Gaddis said. "I was thinking about both — not just the young, but also the elderly who wanted to get out into the forest and they can't. But now it's an easier method to walk in there from either side."
Currently, the site is still settling — as part of the restoration, the Friends group planted a number of new plants where construction and past pedestrian treading damaged vegetation.
"I can hardly wait until it heals and everything comes back," Gaddis said. "(Maplewood has) many, many young children, and I'm hoping that we can teach them how to respect nature and get out in nature and not be afraid of it."