A community’s health can be measured by its wealth of wild places and in Western Washington County you can discover a bit of an outdoor secret.
It's a place where the quiet life is prized by wildness at Fernhill Wetlands.
If you’re lucky you may cross paths with wildlife photographer Steve Halpern. He travels this way each week and each time he does, he takes a deep breath to savor a place that’s meant for the quiet times.
“In order to do bird photography, you have to have an extraordinary tolerance for frustration,” said the longtime photographer. “You need patience, be willing to endure cold and heat and bugs and then remember that none of that shows up in the picture.”
What does show up in Halpern’s wonderful bird photographs are moments of wildness that are set in a place you’ve likely never seen or heard much about near Forest Grove, Oregon.
You may find it surprising that so much wildness – nearly 800-acres – is just thirty minutes west of Portland.
Once considered a ‘wasteland,’ the local community thought there had to be a better way and began to change the scene thirty years ago.
The restoration and preservation efforts have paid off – today, Fernhill Wetlands is a place where eagles have a home to raise their young and where thousands of waterfowl gather each winter.
Halpern calls Fernhill Wetlands a “birder’s paradise” and one that's largely unknown.
ABOVE PHOTOS COURTESY STEVE HALPERN
"I think it’s amazing, not just for the wildlife, but for the city of Forest Grove and Washington County to have a world class wetland. This place is as good and as wonderful a wetland as you could hope for and it’s really in our own backyards.”
This week, Fernhill Wetlands got even better!
The landowner, Clean Water Services, embarked on a $12 million project last year to enhance the Fernhill Wetlands property with a more natural process to clean wastewater.
Three acres of the site – and there’s much more on the way – have been transformed into Fernhill Gardens. The site - now open to the public - is marked by massive boulders, huge trees and nearly 60,000 wetland shrubs and plants.
The practical goal of the project is to cool treated wastewater at an affordable price before it flows into the nearby Tualatin River.
Project Manager, John Dummer, said that a project of this scale has never been built before:
“The process of naturalizing or bringing water back to nature is one of the things we wanted to evoke in this restorative garden. We want this to be a place where people can come, experience nature but also provide a purpose of cleaning and cooling the water – hence, all of the vegetation.”
The garden is a place that people will certainly want to visit – crowned by two massive wooden bridges that invite and entice visitors down the trail.
Water Resources Manager, Jared Kinnear, added: “It’s a win-win for the water, win-win for the habitat and really offers amenities for people too."
Local people like Debby de Carlo (a member of the local Friends of Fernhill Wetlands) agreed that the new garden will be a valuable asset to the community and to the wildlife that live there.
“This place is like a silver lining in Oregon’s rainy winters,” said De Carlo. “You see more variety of ducks here in the winter. When I’m out in a natural place like this, I forget about myself. It’s almost like a meditation to be out here surrounded by wildness.”
Halpern agreed and said that as more folks discover Fernhill, they will come to appreciate what it offers: “It’s a place where our national bird has successfully come back from the brink of extinction. That’s really a remarkable thing and it’s good to know there’s still something wild out here.”