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Nurturing the rebirth of Nob Hill Nature Park

The newest park in St. Helens portfolio offers sweeping views and a mix of habitats along the Columbia River


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: DARRYL SWAN - Charles McCoy, coordinator of the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council, explores a pool of black standing water caught in a ravine at Nob Hill Nature Park. The council had provided grant funding for restoration work in the park, including eradication of English ivy and Himalayan blackberries. SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: DARRYL SWANNob Hill Nature Park is the infant in the family of a dozen St. Helens city parks.

But thanks to the nurturing attention from neighbors, a concept the city has embraced and Scappoose Bay Watershed Council’s grant efforts, it’s growing — in ecological and geographic importance if not in actual size.

The modest five-acre park — one of only two nature parks in St. Helens, the other being the Columbia Botanical Gardens — reposes above the Columbia River in a southeast nook above Olde Towne. It got its start five years after Howard Blumenthal moved into his home on 3rd Street in 2000. In fact, it was the initiative of Blumenthal and his girlfriend, Caroline Skinner, that elevated the forested area up to park status.

“It was actually a buffer zone between us and heavy industrial when I moved in,” Blumenthal recalls.

From the edge of the park’s bluff are rare top-down views of the former Boise Cascade veneer plant to the east. Beyond the industrial landscape — which even now is underdoing a transformation as building demolition is underway — one has a clear line of sight to the northern tip of Sauvie Island, the Columbia River and, across the river, the mouth of the Lewis River.

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: DARRYL SWAN - A run of warm February weather coaxed an early sprouting of Indian plum along an improved trail in Nob Hill Nature Park.As a wooded buffer zone seemingly of little importance, it had suffered from neglect.

“There were wild, unkempt blackberries all over the place, [English] ivy growing up the trees. Every once in a while a kid would get ahold of an ATV and tear it up and get it all muddy,” Blumenthal says. “And then the park would heal and somebody would do it all over again.”

There has been mounting interest in the park following Blumenthal and Skinner’s appeal to the city to adopt it into the city’s park strategy. For one, Nob Hill Nature Park offers a diverse mix of oak woodland and wetland habitats.

A sampling of the oak woodland’s flora includes serviceberry, mock orange, spirea, trillium, vibernum, Oregon grape and poison oak — the latter serving as encouragement to stay on the trails. There is also an impressive collection of camas on a southeastern hill overlooking the city’s wastewater ponds — a strange combination, perhaps, as the ponds also serve as the source of an occasional wafting, organic smell that can be hard to overlook.

In the wetland category, there are snowberries and Indian plum, to name just a few. A low substrate of basalt immediately under the topsoil gives way to trickling streams and the occasional stretch of trapped, stilled water caught in ravines thick with decaying plants.

For bird watchers, there is also the chance to catch sight of a pileated woodpecker or red-breasted sapsucker.

Charles McCoy, the new coordinator of the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council, said the council in 2009 had secured a grant for $10,000 for removal of the invasive species and restoration of native habitat.

“We’re trying to replicate what’s already out here,” said McCoy, pointing to the council’s targeted planting of native flora which, when established, is hoped to further ward off the encroachment of invasive species, such English ivy, Himalayan blackberries and reed canary grass. It will take constant vigilance, however.

McCoy said the park has come a long way since he and others spent hours removing a rusted steel culvert that had been sunk in a wetland area at the beginning of the restoration. He attributes the attention from neighbors such as Blumenthal, Skinner and others who form the Friends of Nob Hill Nature Park as the force behind the positive transformation.

In fact, he said, with grant funding having reached an end, it is the efforts from Friends of Nob Hill Nature Park that will carry the park into the next phase of restoration.

Already, Blumenthal has donated wood and Skinner contributed time and sweat equity to construct footbridges over the occasional wet-zone that dots the park’s improved and expanded trail system.

“We go in there and pick the trash up and call [the city] occasionally for a few things,” Blumenthal says. “It’s interesting to see other people enjoy it and trying to get it back to where it doesn’t have the invasive plants.”

For many St. Helens residents, the transformation of Nob Hill Nature Park is not going without notice.

“It’s a lot better than it used to be. A lot of these trails didn’t exist,” said Brandon Lofquist of St. Helens, who explored the park with his children on an overcast day in late February. “Not a lot of people come up here, and that’s what I like.”