by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge visitor services manager Kim Strassberg points out different bird species at the viewing deck.Hunters, anglers and photographers should have more reason to visit — and appreciate — the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge in coming years.

The federal refuge north of Sherwood proposes expanded opportunities for hunting, fishing and nature photography in its newly adopted comprehensive conservation plan, a 3-inch-thick management guide to chart the scenic area’s growth over the next decade and a half.

“We know what the next 15 years will look like as we expand,” says Erin Holmes, refuge manager for the 22-year-old site, which only opened to the public in 2006. “We have finally put together the ingredients, and now we can start cooking.”

It’s one of 562 wildlife refuges operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service around the country, but one of only a handful located in an urban area. That gives the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge a special role in protecting plants, animals and the namesake river that snakes through the refuge, while serving a large nearby population.

The refuge doesn’t have the large expanse of land that other refuges have, because it’s in a metropolitan area, says visitor services manager Kim Strassburg. But that location enables it to acquaint far more people with the values and assets of wildlife areas, and enlighten them about why such habitats are important to conserve, she says.

“We must take care as we make conservation decisions that they fit with the sometimes competing priorities,” Strassburg says. “The plan is so fresh out of the oven that we’re still digesting it, but it includes restoring more imperiled habitats and also reaching a larger audience that reflects the diversity of the greater Portland area.”

Investing in the future

The plan, completed in September, was four years in the making.

It was mandated by a 1997 law enacted by Congress, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which requires conservation planning, with extensive public participation, for the nation’s more than 150 million acres of wildlife refuges.

“The improvements will come incrementally because we can’t do everything at once,” Holmes says. “There will be expanded hunting and fishing and photography options, and we’ll keep the programs that are doing well.”

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee of additional federal funds to carry out the conservation plan, she says. “We rely on the annual federal budget cycle, but we will be able to apply for grants and develop partnerships.”

Lush habitat

The refuge is situated within the floodplain of the Tualatin River. Though the refuge comprises less than 1 percent of the 712-square-mile watershed, it supports some of the most abundant and varied wildlife in that watershed.

The refuge was established in 1992 and now serves 131,000 visitors annually. It’s still relatively new as a visitors’ attraction. It’s only been open to the community for about seven years, and the visitors’ center opened about five years ago.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Hundreds of duck and geese bathe at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.In 2007, the Wapato Lake Unit was established, more than doubling the size of the original refuge. Combined, the Sherwood and Wapato Lake units total 7,370 acres, with 2,217 acres under active management.

The overall management directive in the original Land Protection Plan when the refuge was created was to “protect, enhance and manage upland, wetland and riparian habitats for a variety of migratory birds and resident fish and wildlife, as well as for the enjoyment of people.”

The new comprehensive conservation plan expands upon that.

One of Strassburg’s personal favorite goals in the new plan is Goal 13, which states: “Build a broad-based natural resource conservation constituency with a focus on urban audiences to create a conservation ethic within urban communities; increase relevance of habitat conservation, wildlife heritage, and the refuge system in the eyes of urban citizens; and instill a sense of empowerment for urban communities to work together to actively support conservation, in both local and global settings.”

If refuge managers can fulfill that, they’ll surely have tens of thousands more visitors discovering this scenic gem in Portland’s backyard.

Strassburg says she’s glad to have the support of the Friends of the Refuge, a citizen group that’s more than 20 years old and was instrumental in getting the refuge established. Volunteers perform many key roles around the refuge, help link the refuge to the community, and provide financial support, Strassburg says.

“It’s a beautiful relationship to have a nonprofit volunteer organization that is autonomous marching side by side with us — one that cares just as much about the refuge as the Fish & Wildlife staff do.”

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