By Erin Middlewood
Thanks to more than a decade of effort by Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a threatened patch of majestic Oregon white oak now enjoys protection as part of Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Friends' land trust donated 52 acres of woodlands in Clark County, WA, to the wildlife refuge in February.
"It's very easy to say we completed a donation, but we can't lose sight of the years and years of work that went into making that happen," said Dan Bell, director of Friends' land trust.
Family steps in to hold onto property
Bell's predecessor, Kate McBride, said the land trust first looked at the property when the real-estate market peaked in 2007. The trust passed, given the high price in a market that was starting to slide.
"A lot of it is about timing," McBride said.
In 2013, a conservation-minded family bought the property to hold it until the land trust could purchase it.
"We fell in love with this land, and these trees and these fields," said Nell Warren, whose family stepped in. "We feel really, really lucky that potentially our kids are going to be able to be out here and see the Gorge the way I did when I was a kid."
Trees provide "extraordinary habitat"
After the successful Preserve the Wonder campaign, which raised $5.6 million, Friends was able to complete the purchase of the Washougal woodlands along with other properties the trust had targeted.
"Oregon white oak woodlands are a rare and critical habitat in the lower areas of the Columbia River Gorge," Bell said. "The trees themselves are pretty spectacular. Some are hundreds of years old. The open-meadow characteristic makes it extraordinary habitat for squirrels, songbirds, insects, pollinators and other wildlife."
More than 200 vertebrate and an abundance of invertebrate species live in the hillside woodlands.
"It's a stunning piece of property in a completely different way than the lowlands," McBride said.
Oaks Unit protects woodlands for future generations
The refuge calls the new addition the Oaks Unit, and will focus on improving the quality of existing habitat and reducing threats from invasive species there.
"It’s with great gratitude and pride that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls itself a partner with Friends of the Columbia Gorge," said Christopher Lapp, project leader for the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Steigerwald.
"Friends' purchase and subsequent donation of 52 of the total 88-acre unit will help ensure that the oaks, and the animal and plant species that depend on them, will be available for future generations of Americans to enjoy."
Erin Middlewood is a writer from Vancouver, WA. She enjoys exploring the Columbia Gorge with her husband and two sons. She's especially fond of the Nancy Russell Overlook at Cape Horn. Follow her at erinmiddlewood.com or @emiddlewood on Twitter.
A summertime view of Oregon white oaks at the former Upland Oaks Preserve the Wonder campaign property on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. (photographer: Michael Horodyski)