Refuge restoration project shows impact of cooperation

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

The massive floodplain restoration project slated for Washougal’s Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge clicked into high-gear last month.

After more than six years of planning, dreaming and forming partnerships, the numerous stakeholders in the $22 million project — including the Port of Camas-Washougal, the city of Washougal, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Washington Department of Transportation — found out July 5 that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) had agreed to fund 80 percent of the project after careful environmental considerations.

Debrah Marriott, executive director of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, which is overseeing the restoration project, told the Post-Record funding was never a given.

“At our last review, we were holding our breath,” Marriott said. “The numbers had to pencil out for (BPA) as far as the fish recovery and the cost of the project.”

The project will include a few hiccups, including the closure of the beloved local wildlife refuge in 2021, but in the end is expected to be, as one U.S. Fish and Wildlife official put it, “a game-changer” for the area.

The project will restore nearly 1,000 acres of historic floodplain habitat near the Columbia River and Gibbons Creek, re-establish 200 acres of native, riparian forest; reduce flooding risks to state Route 14, city and Port infrastructure and nearby residences; increase hiking, education and tourism opportunities at the wildlife refuge; and is expected to add more than $40 million to the local economy and create more than 440 family-wage jobs.

Pretty exciting, right? This project will likely make Camas-Washougal a destination for hikers and wildlife lovers looking for, as the USFW official, Christopher Lapp, told the Post-Record, “world-class wildlife viewing opportunities.”

And none of it would have been possible without a level of cooperation among federal, state, local agencies as well as nonprofit environmental groups and private businesses — part of the funding is coming from Floodplains by Design, a public-private partnership under the umbrellas of the Nature Conservancy and Ecology Washington — rarely seen in today’s divisive world.

We should look to the floodplain restoration project as a shining example of what can get done when we push aside differences in search of a common goal and learn how to work together for the betterment of our community and our environment.

The nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge group, which raised $5.6 million in its Preserve the Wonder campaign to help purchase a critical 160 acres east of the wildlife refuge — allowing the floodplain restoration stakeholders to keep costs of removing the levee, much of which rests on that 160 acres, to a minimum — also deserve a great deal of the credit for this project.

We are all incredibly lucky to live and/or work in Washington’s “Gateway to the Gorge,” and to be so close to the largest National Scenic Area in the United States. There is never a bad time to show how thankful we are by giving back to a nonprofit that is working to ensure the Gorge is just as awe-inspiring for future generations.

There are hundreds of ways to thank the Friends for their work preserving the Gorge. You can become a member, gift a membership to someone you love, leave a gift to the Friends in your will or estate plans, purchase a “tribute gift” for a loved one, purchase a business membership or give a monthly donation to the group. Don’t have money to donate? Volunteer to help remove invasive plants, repair trails or get involved in one of the Friends’ many advocacy campaigns.

To learn more about the Friends, visit gorge or find them on social media sites using the @GorgeFriends handle.