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Steigerwald Reconnection Restores Wetland Habitat

Steigerwald Reconnection Restores Wetland Habitat
View of ongoing transformation at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. (photographer: Sarah Skelly)
By Sarah Skelly
Volunteer Coordinator
March 23, 2022

Update, March 28, 2022: The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership has announced that Steigerwald Refuge is scheduled to reopen on May 1, 2022.

On two consecutive days last November, volunteers from the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, Gorge Refuge Stewards, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge joined together at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge to plant willow cuttings along Gibbons Creek in the newly opened wetlands along the Columbia River.

The planting campaign is part of the Steigerwald Reconnection Project, a multi-year collaborative effort to reopen the connection of Gibbons Creek to its historic floodplain along the Columbia River and restore salmon habitat and native vegetation.

Volunteer Gorge stewards and staff are used to navigating northwest rains. However, the days leading up to these much-anticipated fall events brought the first heavy rains of the season, with flood advisories throughout the region. Working in dynamic ecosystems always means rolling with what nature brings us. Crew leaders arrived the morning of the first planting to find that newly reopened Gibbons Creek was functioning exactly as it should: the floodplain and planting area were inundated.

Planting along the creek that morning was not possible, but staff quickly recognized the teachable moment the day offered. Volunteers had a first-hand opportunity to learn about the reconnection project and witness the newly restored ecosystem performing as planned. And a handful of dedicated, waterproofed volunteers still managed to plant 75 willows in upland areas, navigating puddles, wet masks, and fogged glasses. Watching the wide rushing creek, we all wondered what the next day would bring.

By the following morning, the rain had ceased. The water settled into the floodplain, leaving the riparian area where we planned to work inaccessible by foot, so the volunteers soon spread out along the west bank of Gibbons Creek. Working from early morning until noon, we revegetated the riparian zone with more than 800 willows.

Refuge scheduled to reopen this spring

Weather permitting, Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge will reopen to the public sometime in April. After two years, visitors will be able to get their first glimpses of the newly restored floodplain. Hikers along the new west levee trail looking down along the creek and floodplain will be able to see the willows leafing out, beginning to provide refuge for migratory birds, along with waterfowl, juvenile salmon and lamprey, and likely a beaver or two.

As the reconnection project wraps up in 2022, the Estuary Partnership expects more opportunities to bring volunteers together for more plantings throughout the fall.

Slideshow of Steigerwald Landscapes and Native Willow Planting Event (photos by Sarah Skelly unless otherwise noted)