Where the edges of Wilsonville, Sherwood and Tualatin overlap, signs of development are everywhere. On SW Grahams Ferry Road, along the urban growth boundary, heavy trucks speed past large industrial buildings, construction sites and warehouses. A sign warning drivers to watch for crossing deer is very close to one pointing the way to nearby Interstate 5. On either side of the road, among the cranes and commercial buildings, are creeks and ponds, oak trees and fir forest. This southwest portion of the region is rich in wildlife and home to imperiled oak woodlands, and rare plants and wildflowers. Its landforms were shaped 15,000 years ago by the scouring waters and whirlpools of the Missoula Floods.
Over the last 25 years, using funds from three bond measures, Metro has made several land purchases in the area with the aim of preserving one of the few viable biodiversity corridors left in the area.
North Coffee Lake Creek Wetlands
Size: 3.67 acres
Purchase price: $110,000
Neat features: It connects three previously fragmented Metro natural areas to form a 2.6-mile conservation corridor filled with upland forest, oak woodlands and prairies, peat wetlands, kolk ponds, basalt hummocks, rare shallow soil plant communities.
Now protected: Clean water for fish and wildlife along 650 feet of Coffee Lake Creek.
Animals: Salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, cutthroat trout, Pacific chorus frogs, northern red-legged frogs, long-toed salamander, redtail hawks, red-winged blackbirds, waterfowl, beaver, muskrat, deer, small and large mammals.
Metro’s most recent acquisition is very small: just 3.67 acres. The small plot lies to the west of Grahams Ferry Road, overlooking Coffee Lake and the industrial buildings on the far shore. Canada geese honk as they fly over the water and a frog sings nearby.
This little property is the vital puzzle piece that links up a span of three existing Metro natural areas, says Metro natural resource scientist Andrea Berkley. Together they form a 350-acre protected landscape that includes “two of the most imperiled types of habitat in the Willamette Valley: wetlands and oak upland.”
The new property’s impact is disproportionate to its size, says Metro real estate negotiator, Ryan Ruggiero. It connects the North Coffee Lake Creek Wetlands Natural Area to the Tonquin Scablands Natural Area. This means that almost 100 acres of contiguous wildlife habitat and a mile-long stretch of creek are protected in perpetuity. And just across Grahams Ferry Road is Metro’s 265-acre Coffee Lake Creek Wetlands. “It’s not common,” Ruggiero says, “that a single acquisition can have such an amplifying effect on habitat connectivity, the way this one does.”
Why are connected stretches of protected land so important? Berkley explains that birds, fish and other animals have lots of challenges that make it hard for them to live and breed. Fences, cars, homes and businesses block free movement for all kinds of wildlife. Invasive plants and dirty water don’t provide adequate cover or food sources.
When animals can move freely on large stretches of protected land that has cool, clean water and consistent vegetation communities, she explains, “this makes it possible for them to have larger populations. And if say, a fire or a housing development disrupts one end of their habitat, they have other places to go.”
Climate change has added to these stressors, Berkley adds. More extreme weather and changing climate means “more reasons to move, so it is even more important for the areas we have conserved to be large and connected.”
Berkley’s work focuses on restoring habitat for fish and wildlife. The new property is right where Coffee Creek becomes a more open lake, she says, perhaps because of beaver activity. “The creek area is more fish focused, but here at this lake portion we are looking at waterfowl, amphibians and possibly even turtles using that water body, so what we do on the adjacent land matters for those creatures.”
According to Berkley, long-toed salamander, northern red-legged frog and Pacific chorus frog all likely use the lake. Amphibians like to lay their eggs attached to vegetation in or very near the water. Right now, she says, that’s mostly reed canary grass, a competitive weed that likes wet places but provides poor habitat for amphibians to lay their eggs and poor cover for nesting waterfowl and red-winged blackbirds. “So, we’ll replace the reed canary grass with native sedges, rushes, cattails and other plants that provide good cover for birds,” she says.
Berkley is also excited about her work in the southern part of Coffee Lake Creek Wetlands, right on the edge of Wilsonville’s Villebois neighborhood. On a recent afternoon, people pushed strollers, walked dogs and jogged along a foot path skirting two new city parks which overlooks the natural area. Some stopped to gaze over the wide expanse of land.
What they were looking at is, Berkley says, “a less common peat soil wetland.” This matters because peat wetlands do a good job of capturing carbon from the air and holding it if they can function as they are supposed to. If, that is, water covers them and they have healthy vegetation.
Before Metro bought it, the wetland was drained so cattle could graze. Right now, Berkley says, “there’s a huge ditch down the center that drains it and it’s almost 100% covered with reed canary grass. Our plan is to modify the ditch and allow water to collect in low swales and ponds in a way that doesn’t threaten surrounding development.”
She estimates bulldozers will start moving dirt in a couple of years to remove the ditch and drain tile and build swales and ponds. The reed canary grass will be replaced with native wetland plants.
Jonathan Soll, Metro’s science and stewardship division manager, notes that the new acquisition ties together fragmented properties into a connected landscape. “The work of creating these landscape-scale sites and building habitat connectivity over long distances is intergenerational work that happens piece by piece,” he says. “Sometimes there’s no progress for a long time while we wait for willing sellers.”
The first purchases in this quilt of properties was Coffee Lake Creek Wetland Natural Area in 1997, when Metro bought four plots. North Coffee Creek Wetland Natural Area began with a purchase in 1998. Purchases were made every couple of years until 2016 when Metro bought Tonquin Scablands Natural Area. Altogether, 15 properties ranging in size from .09 acres to 52 were bought using funds from bond measures passed by voters in in 1995, 2006 and 2019.
The science and real estate teams work together strategically to conserve resource-rich land in large blocks and corridors. The process starts with ecological assessments that point to valuable habitat resources. These connected properties boast creeks, wetlands, Pacific madrone, legacy stands of Oregon white oak, and rare plant communities associated with the unique geology (shallow soils, basalt hummocks, kolk ponds) of the region.
Once priority properties have been identified, Ruggiero and others on the real estate team approach landowners to see if they are willing to sell. “It’s very much a long game. We are cultivating relationships with people… Our goal is to be good ambassadors for Metro, it’s always to say, ‘We understand you’re not ready to sell right now but if and when you are, we hope that we’ll be the first people you approach about a potential purchase.’”
The real estate team also closely tracks the market to see if new listings fit conservation priorities. If so, they act quickly.
For this latest acquisition, Ruggiero says, the landowners were looking to sell and were approached by a real estate developer from Florida who made them an offer without seeing the property. The landowners, aware that Metro owned adjacent property on two sides, reached out. “They felt that it belonged in our hands given our history of conservation work in the area and their support of that,” Ruggiero says. “We dropped everything to pursue this, got permission from the conservation director to match and exceed the offer from the Florida developer, and in the end the property appraised at more than what we paid for it.”
Berkley, Ruggiero and Soll all note that Metro’s overarching goal is to eventually create a wildlife corridor that links the Willamette River, just south of Graham Oaks Nature Park, to the Tualatin watershed up north in the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.
There are no plans to develop these areas into new nature parks with public facilities such as parking or restrooms, but Graham Oaks Nature Park and Wilsonville’s two new parks offer excellent examples of the types of habitat throughout the corridor, including mature upland forest, oak savanna, wetlands and a creek flowing through it. Eventually the Ice Age Tonquin Trail will run nearby much of the corridor.
Winding through farmland, industrial sites and new neighborhoods, the corridor of natural areas demonstrates the impact of green spaces alongside development. It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice, but it does take long-term planning and the ability to act quickly if the region is to both support the housing needs of people and preserve the nature that makes this place so special.
“There’s urgency around this work because development continues,” says Soll. “We need to work fast to capture these opportunities while they still exist.” This latest acquisition, he says, creates a core element of connectivity that helps to retain wildlife movement and climate resilience through the Coffee Creek Basin.
“Sometimes the pursuit of these small, inexpensive properties is every bit as important as the million-dollar, shining jewel acquisitions that make big headlines,” Soll says. “This small property of less than five acres can really tie the rest of our work together and increase the value of all the other work we’ve done.”