Upgrades planned at Gaston wildlife refuge
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking for input on a plan to expand recreational opportunities at the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Gaston.
A drafted proposal includes a new 3.35-mile hiking trail, a 30-acre area of high ground for wildlife observation, an outdoor classroom and photo blinds or elevated platform for wildlife photography. The lake attracts a variety of wading birds, such as great blue herons.
According to the drafted plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working to restore native plant communities in the lake bed that have been destroyed by overfarming.
Getting rid of invasive plants and restoring a more natural biome at Wapato Lake has been a top priority for the Fish and Wildlife Surface. In 2019, state and federal workers began using herbicides and blowtorches to carry out controlled burns around the lake's perimeter, obliterating Himalayan blackberry, reed canary grass and other unwanted plants.
The federal agency estimates the upgrades to make the area more user-friendly would cost $150,000 and then require $88,500 in yearly costs, including staff salaries.
The 4,310-acre Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2013 and is considered an urban refuge due to its proximity to Portland. It was first opened to the public in 2020 as a place to hunt waterfowl, an activity permitted on 275 acres of refuge land.
More to do and see
Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge isn't the only burgeoning area in the Gaston area where you can look at wildlife, take a hike and enjoy the great outdoors.
The regional government Metro this month opened its long-awaited Chehalem Ridge Nature Park at 38263 S.W. Dixon Mill Road, about 4 miles east of Gaston.
Chehalem Ridge isn't quite as large as the Wapato Lake NWR — about 1,260 acres — although it does rank as Metro's second-largest park behind the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in Portland, and its largest on Portland's Westside.
Like Wapato Lake, the area that is now Chehalem Ridge Nature Park was privately owned until relatively recently. In 2010, Stimson Lumber Co. sold the land to Metro.
The land purchase and restoration efforts at Chehalem Ridge were paid for by Metro's 1995 and 2006 parks and nature bond measures, as well as two local option levies in 2013 and 2016.
Metro has also been working to restore and protect natural habitat at Chehalem Ridge. As with Wapato Lake, the area is closely tied to the Tualatin River watershed, as several streams flow from the area that the nature park covers in the Chehalem Mountains down into the river.
The Tualatin River itself has its headwaters in the Coast Range. It flows east, passing through Tualatin and West Linn before joining the Willamette River about 10 miles south of Portland.
Restoring a place of significance
Wapato Lake is managed from the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge just outside Sherwood. Rebecca Gómez Chuck was hired earlier this year as the refuge manager for both sites, following the retirement of Larry Klimek, who oversaw much of the work to restore Wapato Lake and prepare the area for visitors.
Historically, Wapato Lake was a major gathering place for the Atfalati, or Tualatin, a group of Indigenous Kalapuyan people who were the first inhabitants of the Tualatin Valley.
The lake's name comes from the wapato, a type of edible tuber that was a staple of the Atfalati diet.
While it's been a landmark in the region since time immemorial, the shallow lake was almost completely drained after the arrival of settlers, with water being diverted for the irrigation of crops — particularly onions, which became a major cash crop in the Tualatin Valley in the first half of the 20th century.
As detailed by Gaston historian Ken Bilderback, onion farming as an industry experienced a succession of major setbacks — during World War II, when many of the area's Japanese American farmers were interned on the orders of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and in 1996, when the Tualatin River flooded — and in 2000, the farmers who had controlled the Wapato Lake area for decades asked the federal government to purchase the land.
Since the refuge was established in 2013, Wapato Lake has been refilled, and while work has been slow going at times, the Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to turn it into a recreational spot that thousands can enjoy.
The agency is accepting public comments through Jan. 15.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with more information on the history of Wapato Lake and other recreational opportunities in the area. Max Egener and Mark Miller contributed to this report.
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