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East Multnomah County wetlands offers unique urban sanctuary for wildlife, diverse array of native plants

COURTESY PHOTO: CAROL ZYVATKAUSKAS - An otter fishes in Fairview Creek. One of the best views of the largest wetlands in the city of Gresham requires an adventurous spirit and a sturdy pair of shoes.

Most probably don't realize the scale of the Fairview Creek Headwaters, a marshland that stretches between Powell and Division at the base of Grant Butte. It's the beginning of Fairview Creek, which narrowly winds its way 5-miles north through neighborhoods and business parks before ending at Fairview Lake.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Carol Caz Zyvatkauskas loves to visit the wetlands to get wildlife photos. Carol "Caz" Zyvatkauskas first discovered a route by the wetlands' edge while participating in an official bird survey. The Gresham wildlife photographer was tasked with counting bird species in the area, and the best way to do that was to get close to the water.

So she discovered an old power company road that ran underneath a series of pylons, parallel to the wetlands and the Gresham-Fairview Trail further up on an incline. Calling it a road may be a stretch — the gravel path is broken down, with sinkholes and snarls of blackberry brambles tripping the unaware.

But for those willing to risk life and limb, it offers an incredible sight of the wetlands.

"This place shows we as people can live in harmony with nature," Zyvatkauskas said. "This wetland is a rare, unique thing to have in the city."

Fairview Creek Headwaters is home to one of the largest, and most diverse mixes of animals in East Multnomah County. There are hundreds of birds flying through the air and swimming in the water; multiple beaver families living in prominent lodges in the middle of the creek; between five and 10 river otters; a large population of native western pond turtles, which were nearly driven to extinction in Gresham by invasive competitors; and many terrestrial animals like deer, coyote and foxes that make their way to the water's edge from the butte.

"Visiting here creates this state of wonder — you know you are somewhere special," Zyvatkauskas said.

Creating the headwaters

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The Fairview Creek Headwaters is the largest wetlands in East Multnomah County.The Fairview Creek Headwaters is really comprised of three distinct zones.

There is the towering Grant Butte to the west, which collects rainfall that is sucked underground then bubbles up into the wetlands through an aquifer. The Shaull Property, woods and abutting Southwest Community Park is a former farm/nursery with a stand of Douglas fir, burgeoning marshlands and open meadows. Finally there is the wild wetlands to the north, sandwiched between the butte and a development on a rise to the east, where Fairview Creek begins as a wide, deep channel.

"Each wildlife species uses a different part of the area," said Mike Wallace, Gresham's ecologist.

COURTESY PHOTO: CAROL ZYVATKAUSKAS - The wetland is an attractive habitat for waterfowl — such as this coot and Canada goose —  because its insulated from the citys noise pollution.  The land is owned by the city of Gresham and Metro Regional Government, with East Multnomah Soil & Water supporting with funds and volunteers.

Most of it used to be farmland, primarily for livestock grazing, and was covered in invasive reed canary grass. But Gresham bought much of the area in the 1990s and began restoration by dealing with invasive plants and slowing the flow of the creek.

Volunteers brought back a tree canopy of black cottonwood, alder and other native plants, while turning Fairview Creek into a 1,500-foot meandering channel. They put in beaver guards to protect trees, added perches for birds, and floating platforms for the hundreds of native turtles.

More recent work has included the purchase of the former 32-acre Gantenbein Dairy Property in 2014; the buying of 15-acres of land on Grant Butte in 2017; and last year's purchase of the Shaull Property after public outcry to protect it from a Bend developer's machinations.

Discovering wildlife

COURTESY PHOTO: CAROL ZYVATKAUSKAS - The Fairview Creek Headwaters has a wide array of wildlife, from native turtles to this pair of mallards. Zyvatkauskas has so many stories of interactions with animals during the more than a hundred times she has visited the Fairview Headwaters.

The first time she spotted an otter was thanks to a cacophony of geese disturbed by the playful animal as it splashed about. She was able to get a photo of it eating a catfish, a species officials were surprised to learn lived in the wetlands.

During another trip she came across a mother killdeer plover (wading bird), which became agitated after the photographer unknowingly wandered too close to its nest. The killdeer began a strange dance, mimicking having a wounded wing, in an attempt to draw Zyvatkauskas away from its nest — cobbled together with gravel down by the shoreline with a clutch of four eggs.

COURTESY PHOTO: CAROL ZYVATKAUSKAS - An egret flies over the wetlands between Powell and Division.  "The trick to seeing wildlife is to keep coming back as much as possible, and being patient," she said.

There is perhaps no better place to do so in Gresham than the Fairview Creek Headwaters, Wallace said, because of how protected it is from the hustle and bustle of the city.

With the properties to the east so high up, and the busy roads far enough away, there is no noise pollution at the wetlands. That means it's one of the few places in Gresham where you can spot beavers lazily swimming during the day, rather than hiding until night.

"People want a very low-impact development at Shaull, which aligns with what the city is planning," Wallace said.

There is a tentative timeline in place for developing the Shaull Property and opening access to the headwaters without diluting what makes it so special.

This spring they are installing city park signage and conducting erosion control for exposed areas where old farm structures were removed by the prior owner. Then in early summer teams will begin assessing the true extend of laminated root rot, which is a fungus that is damaging several trees in the woods and causing potentially dangerous situations for visitors. Crews expect to manage the rot, with several trees likely being removed in the coming months.

Later in the year there will be habitat restoration and tree plantings, likely utilizing community volunteers.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Some of the trees at the Shaull Property will have to be removed because of a fungus rotting the root systems.  "The (Shaull Woods) is a great forest that just needs to be managed," Wallace said. "We can repair the habitat and make it more complex, drawing in more of the unique mammals that we've got that are more skittish like mink and foxes."

Three to five years out the plans become more ambitious. The city will continue to restore habitats while securing funding to develop Southwest Community Park, which now includes the Shaull Property.

While nothing has been finalized, there will likely be a small parking lot along Powell, more defined trails, and viewing platforms with informational signage. Most of the informal talks among folks at city hall are for it to remain a nature park, celebrating the flora and fauna rather than erecting a playground.

"This is about building back our parks and getting people out into nature," Wallace said. "We want people to relax and enjoy the forest and woods in the middle of an urban setting."

While the Headwater's wetlands aren't necessarily included in these development plans, anything done to the south will inevitably affect the whole ecosystem, which is why the city isn't in a rush.

"The key is to be considerate when you are out in nature," Wallace said. "Be a land steward and minimize your influence."

If everything goes to plan it will be easier for the general community to find peace and view the amazing wildlife at the Fairview Creek Headwaters. In the meantime it will remain an isolated sanctuary for all the critters in East County.

"I hope this remains a bewitching place filled with birdsong and the splashes of animals going for a swim," Zyvatkauskas said.

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