Using funds from the voter-approved 2019 parks and nature bond measure, Metro recently purchased a steep canyon in unincorporated Washington County. The 40-acre property, now named Fir Clearing Creek Confluence Natural Area, includes upland forest, waterfalls, three fish-bearing streams and is home to dozens of native plant and animal species.
Fir Clearing Creek Canyon
Size: 39.5 acres
Purchase price: $1 million
Neat features: Three creeks (Heaton, Fir Clearing, unnamed), waterfalls, many seasonal springs and streams.
• 975 feet on both sides of Heaton Creek
• 1,350 feet on both sides of Fir Clearing Creek
• 740 feet of one side of an unnamed tributary
Habitats: Young- and old-growth forest, streams, springs and waterfalls that provide cool, clean water to the Tualatin River.
Animals: Fish, coho salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, cutthroat trout. Freshwater mussels. Birds including, band-tailed pigeon, and small and large mammals, northern red-legged frogs.
It is the first property ever to be purchased for conservation in the Heaton Creek watershed and is an anchor for future conservation investments there. Forested headwater creeks on the property provide cool, clean water to the Tualatin River and offer opportunities to improve water quality, habitat connectivity and climate resilience in the wider area.
The property cost $1 million. The new natural area is within Metro’s Lower Tualatin Headwaters Target Area that links Chehalem Ridge to the west and the Tualatin River floodplain to the north. The target area includes dozens of small streams.
Over the last couple of decades, Metro has acquired and protected 308 acres along Baker Creek, another important tributary one ravine to the east. Like those earlier purchases, Fir Clearing Creek Confluence Natural Area was protected because of its high conservation value, including its contributions to keeping the Tualatin River’s water cool as summers get hotter. There are no plans to create access points like trailheads or parking lots.
“Because Baker and Heaton are part of the same system, it was really natural to expand our work from Baker to include Heaton,” says Jonathan Soll, Metro’s science and stewardship division manager. “In focusing our efforts on streams in the same watershed that are identified as priorities for salmon recovery we are able to get more out of our investment than by scattering our acquisitions more widely on the landscape.”
He explains that Heaton and Baker Creeks join a few miles downstream of this new property before flowing into the Tualatin River at Metro’s Quamash Prairie Natural Area. Just downstream from that is the Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge: “So everything we are doing to protect water upstream is making things better in this area that our country and region has so heavily invested in.”
Indigenous community members were deeply involved in the planning process to identify the types of habitats Metro should focus its energy on acquiring and conserving. The 2019 bond also directed Metro to emphasize properties with cultural resources, meaning plants and animals Indigenous community members use for ceremonies, food or materials for craftworks.
The creeks on the new property provide spawning and rearing habitat for salmon, steelhead, cutthroat trout and Pacific lamprey. “When we protect healthy forests, streams and wetlands, Soll says, “we are protecting a range of native species including many that are fundamental to the traditional lifeways of Indigenous people of the region.”
The upland forest on the property provides habitat for resident and migratory birds, small and large mammals and many native plants, including western red cedar and beaked hazelnut.
Healthy forests shade headwater streams, providing a buffer as summers get hotter and rain patterns change. Models of how climate change may affect the region show that in the long term there may be less rainfall but severe storms are likely to increase in number and intensity.
Soll explains that when rain that falls on roofs, parking lots or roads, most of the water runs off immediately. In a healthy forest, rain makes its way through the groundwater system before slowly being released into the stream. This means there is less danger of flooding during storms and more water available in late summer when rivers are at low flow. (Low flow means warmer water which is bad for salmon.)
Going forward, Metro staff will do initial work at the property by marking boundaries, removing old culverts from the creeks to improve fish passage, and getting rid of holly, blackberry and other invasive plants. They will also prepare the house on the property for lease. The residence is at the top of the canyon, far from the streams, and is in good condition. Rather than spend money to deconstruct the home Metro will lease it and use the money to support its parks and nature program.
“This is the beginning,” Soll says, “of what’s likely to be a multi-generational effort to protect habitat and water quality in the lower Tualatin and headwaters target area.”