On a recent winter morning, Carla Staedter paused as she led a small group through the woods. All was quiet, except for the trill of a nearby song sparrow. But she has been surprised before at this spot.
Investing in Dirksen Nature Park
Two Metro Nature in Neighborhoods grants helped fund land acquisition, construction and restoration at Dirksen Nature Park. The money comes from voter investment in nature through the 2006 natural areas bond measure and the 2013 parks and natural areas levy. Over the years, Metro has invested more than $90 million to support a broad range of community nature projects in the Portland area.
Conserving Northwest ecosystems: In 2010 Metro contributed $1million toward the acquisition of 43 acres of wetlands and mature forests at the confluence of Fanno and Summer creeks. In addition, the City of Tigard used approximately $873,000 of its local share money from the 2006 Metro natural areas bond measure. Washington County contributed $400,000 of its local share money. Combined, the bond measure provided $2.3 million of the $5.3 million cost to acquire the property.
Restoring sensitive habitats: A 2014 capital grant of $390,000 was awarded to restore a forested wetland and install a boardwalk; restore an oak savanna and install an overlook; and build a nature play area. This project improves Dirksen Nature Park and enhances visitor experiences of distinctive Northwest ecosystems.
“This huge mule deer, big chest and rack, sometimes hangs out right here,” she said. “You can smell him before you see him.”
The deer’s hangout is not far from a busy urban area. Dirksen Nature Park sits behind Fowler Middle School in Tigard, close to playing fields and surrounded on three sides by residential neighborhoods. It’s a much-loved community space where people walk their dogs, skateboard, cycle, exercise, and play lacrosse, baseball and rugby. The 48-acre park at the confluence of Fanno and Summer creeks also contains environmentally sensitive ecosystems and functions as wildlife habitat. It’s an important link in biodiversity corridors in the region — “part of the wild underbelly of Tigard,” Staedter said.
Staedter is the environmental engineering project coordinator at the City of Tigard. The forest where she is sometimes surprised by the mule deer is one of seven distinct Northwest habitats within the park, she said. The others are oak savanna, forested wetland, mixed deciduous forest, ash forest, emergent wetland and scrub shrub wetland.
Forested wetlands in good condition are rare in urban settings, Steadter said. Trees are often cut down, removing the canopy component of the wetland and invasive plants often take root, she said. The forested wetland at Dirksen is unusually pristine.
On a recent winter morning, the trees in the forested wetland lean close to the boardwalk and are reflected in the gleaming water below. “ “The idea is to feel like you’re in it,” Staedter said.
She loves how the Oregon ash and oak “provide an ever-changing ceiling” through the seasons: the dense, cool green shade of summer, the quiet drift of yellow leaves in the fall, and the mosaic of twigs and changing sky in the winter.
“The sounds here are always changing,” she adds. It’s a place of quiet despite the traffic that is not far away. Red-tailed hawks and pileated woodpeckers are frequent visitors. Sometimes, this forest wetland is loud with the calls of migrating birds.
“When you work on something this special,” Staedter said, “it touches everything.”
Partnerships protect the park
The efforts to protect the site from development and restore its sensitive habitats have leveraged resources from across the community. “The story of Dirksen is about partnerships,” Staedter said. “It’s heartwarming how much people love this place.”
The property, also known over the years as Fowler Woods and Summer Creek Natural Area, was bought by the Tigard-Tualatin School District in 1974 to build Fowler Middle School. The district used the open area behind the school for playing fields, and the site’s creeks, wooded areas and wetlands were used for outdoor learning.
In 2001, the City of Tigard developed the Fanno Creek Trail, which runs along the park’s eastern boundary. People can walk to the park from downtown Tigard along the Fanno Creek Trail in about 20 minutes.
About this series
Metro has invested in community nature projects for more than 25 years. Through this occasional series in 2017-18, we’ll revisit projects that previously received Nature in Neighborhoods grants or local share money to find out where the projects are now and what difference Metro’s investments made.
In November 2016, voters renewed the Metro parks and natural areas levy. Money from the levy renewal will be available starting in July 2018, and more Nature in Neighborhoods nature education grants will be awarded then.
The Trust for Public Land negotiated an option agreement with the district in 2008, allowing the trust to hold the property off the market until 2010, when the City of Tigard purchased the site using bond and grant money. The park is named after Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen, a former Tigard mayor.
“Developers were very much interested in the property, as it was among the last large, developable tracts close to downtown Tigard,” Owen Wozniak, project manager at the Trust for Public Land, said in an email. “I have no doubt Dirksen Park would be a subdivision now were it not for our effort.”
Metro contributed a $1 million Nature in Neighborhoods capital grant to help buy the property.
A second Nature in Neighborhoods capital grant in 2014 provided $390,000 to install a boardwalk through the forested wetland, restore the oak savanna and build an overlook. Work on the boardwalk and overlook was completed in October 2017.
The overlook, made from basalt, was designed to enhance the open feel of the savanna and offers an expansive view. Non-native trees have been removed, providing dramatically more sunlight for native oaks to thrive. Crews also planted native grass and wildflower bulbs and seeds. Some things they didn’t plant also blossomed.
“Last spring, we had a wonderful surprise bloom of camas,” Staedter said. She suspects that the bulbs, long dormant under the soil, were at last able to germinate when the invasive species were removed. She’s hoping for similar views from the overlook this spring.
The boardwalk over the forested wetland gives visitors an immersive experience while keeping them from tromping through the sensitive wetland.
The capital grant will also pay for the construction of a nature play area, scheduled to be built in 2018. This will allow kids to play with natural elements such as wood, rocks and sand.
Here again, Staedter is leveraging community resources. There are several enormous logs lying near the parking lot from a huge sequoia that stood near the public library. Fanno Creek was undermining the tree, which had to be removed. Staedter got crews to bring over several of the logs to the Dirksen site.
“That’s a 14,000 pound slice,” she said. The logs will be debarked and oiled. They could become seats, tunnels or climbing walls in the nature play area.
This project, she says, has been about “people coming together, investing in people and nature, and getting things done.”
Nature education in action
In addition to protecting sensitive habitat, the new improvements will also provide better first-hand learning experiences for students.
Charissa Jones, an environmental education coordinator at the nonprofit Tualatin Riverkeepers, is keenly aware of the park’s importance to local students. In 2015, more than 2,000 kids participated in nature education, field trips or summer camps at the park.
Tualatin Riverkeepers contracts with the City of Tigard to provide environmental education to kids from several schools and three affordable housing complexes in the area.
On the field trips, students learn about oak savanna habitat; identify poison oak, stinging nettle and toilet paper plants (mullein); notice transitions between different habitats; identify scat; observe aquatic insects, crawdads and fish in the creek; and more.
“It’s all part of getting community members to know and value this natural space,” Jones said.
Sue Manning recently retired after 19 years as Fowler Middle School’s seventh and eighth grade science teacher.
The site was an outdoor learning laboratory for her students who, over the years, raised salmon for release in Summer Creek, removed invasive ivy and blackberry, and planted thousands of native trees and shrubs. The students worked on many of these projects with community groups, high school students and business volunteers.
The place is different as a result. What used to be a grassy field is now full of trees and shrubs. What was once part of a rather soggy baseball diamond is now an emergent wetland.
“It’s satisfying to see kids recognizing plants, birds and fish,” Manning said. “I hope it makes an impact on the way they view things in the future.”