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New Life at Steigerwald Photos and text by cate hotchkiss

For more than 50 years, a man-made earthen levee has cut off the Columbia River from its natural, fertile floodplain at what now constitutes Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the western Columbia Gorge. As a result, salmon, steelhead, and lamprey, some of which are endangered or threatened, have lost access to a safe rest stop on their migratory journeys to and from the ocean.

Next year, however, construction crews will breach that barrier, removing over two miles of it, in order to reconnect the river to the refuge—the largest restoration project ever on the lower Columbia, and the culmination of a decades-long vision by Friends of the Columbia Gorge and its multiple partners.

Looking southeast toward the Oregon side of the Columbia River from Steigerwald Shores preserve.

“This project wouldn’t exist without Friends having acquired Steigerwald Shores,” says Chris Collins, a principal restoration ecologist with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. He’s referring to a 175-acre riverfront parcel, formerly part of a cattle ranch abutting the refuge on its eastern border. In 2017, after eyeing the tract for decades, Friends finally purchased it with funds from its Preserve the Wonder campaign.

“Our role was to buy the land as soon as it became available, and before someone else developed it,” says Friends Land Trust Director Dan Bell. As an intermediary landowner, Friends held the property until the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service obtained their funding to purchase it in April 2020. This is how, in part, the refuge has grown to more than 1,000 acres—piece by piece, over 34 years, through private and land trust acquisitions, Bell explains. By securing Steigerwald Shores, the Columbia’s current levee system could finally be reconfigured, the cornerstone of the entire restoration project.

On June 1, crews began preparing the area for the eventual 2.2-mile river-levee removal, scheduled for next summer or early fall. So far, they have transported about 500,000 cubic yards of earth from the site’s floodplains to its eastern and western borders, where they are building two new setback levees to protect surrounding properties from flooding, explains Collins.

Chris Collins, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership principal restoration ecologist, monitors ongoing work at Steigerwald.

Also, during the summer, contractors raised Washington State Route 14 to the Columbia River’s 500-year flood elevation. North of the highway, teams restored and enhanced 800 feet of Gibbons Creek, which flows into the refuge. The process entailed relocating the stream’s fish, lamprey, and other aquatic species upstream, temporarily draining that section of the creek, reshaping it, and removing invasive plants, such as English ivy and blackberry, from its banks. Crews also restored 50 acres of wetlands on the refuge itself.

Next steps include replanting an additional 170 acres of native riparian forest with cottonwood, willow, and dogwood along the banks of Gibbons Creek and the Columbia River; completing the setback levees; reconnecting Gibbons Creek to the refuge floodplain; and expanding the trail system and parking lot.

In addition to providing a sanctuary for salmon and other fish, the reconnection project is a boon to birds—and those who love watching them.

Steigerwald Shores preserve, 2020.

“By reintroducing seasonal river inundation across the entire site, we’ll suppress invasive plant species, and support native ones,” Collins explains. This will attract a wider variety of wildlife, such as herons and ducks. Furthermore, longer, meandering trails with two new bridges will offer ideal viewpoints for visitors.

The refuge is scheduled to reopen in April 2022. Learn additional details and about latest project updates.

Cate Hotchkiss is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Hood River with her husband, two children, and labradoodle. View Cate's photography website.

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Cate Hotchkiss