This story appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Our Big Backyard, a quarterly magazine about parks and nature. Read more stories, plan an outing with a field guide, and find out more about fun nature events and classes.
Last week, the milking parlor, hay barn and other structures of the former Gantenbein Dairy were razed at Metro’s new Grant Butte Wetlands property.
The work was one of the first steps in returning the defunct farm to its natural, wilder roots as a wetland for frogs, turtles, otters, geese and other wildlife. The restoration is a turning point in a site steeped in history.
Metro partnered with Gresham and the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District to purchase the 33 acres in the Centennial neighborhood last May, an acquisition that was the culmination of seven years of interest in an open space surrounded by urban neighborhoods.
Grant Butte Wetlands combines with adjacent wetlands to form the 120-acre Fairview Creek Headwaters, bounded by Southeast Division Street and Southeast Powell Boulevard and adjacent to the Gresham-Fairview Trail. It’s also next to 69 acres of publicly owned forest owned by Gresham and Rockwood Water People’s Utility District that covers the upper flanks of the butte.
Money to purchase the land came from the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District and the natural areas bond measure passed by voters in 2006.
Trapping and farming days
The wetlands occupy what was once a closed depression bounded on the west by the 658-foot Grant Butte and on the east by a 430-foot-high hill.
High groundwater and springs mean the wetlands have a cool, constant water supply and were likely visited by Native Americans living at Blue Lake, about five miles to the north and, later, fur trappers who sold pelts to the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver. Like most of the region’s wetlands, they would have been thick with beaver, otter and other game.
Thomas Grant homesteaded the butte and wetlands in 1865.
Beginning in the 1870s, Grant and subsequent farmers dug and maintained ditches to drain the land and to create more grazeable acreage.
“That early ditch system, which dewatered the wetland complex at the base of Grant Butte, was referred to as Stanley’s Drainage Ditch and Section Line Drainage Ditch prior to being called Fairview Creek, said Kathy Majidi, Gresham’s natural resources program coordinator.
"We know from court documents that the name change happened sometime after 1937, and the waterway was still regarded as a ditch, not a creek, by the adjacent landowners until at least 1937.”
A northern section, fronting Southeast Division Street, became the Gantenbein Dairy in 1948. It was operated by Henry Gantenbein, part of a dairying family that traces its roots to Swiss dairy farms. He lived there until his death in 2003.
Today the wetlands at the base of Grant Butte are known as the Fairview Creek Headwaters, with water flowing north into Fairview Lake and then to the Columbia River.
Beavers, birds and binoculars
The wetlands are havens for wildlife ranging from ephemeral dragonflies to migrating waterfowl to turtles that can live for decades. Protecting water quality and wildlife habitat are goals for the site, but so is providing public access.
“We don’t believe human access and ecological restoration are mutually exclusive,” said Dan Moeller, Metro’s natural areas land manager.
Laura Guderyahn, watershed restoration specialist with Gresham, agrees.
“We want to provide access for people, not from afar but from a healthy distance,” she said. “It may be an overlook or platform with spotting scopes or binoculars or a chance to get close via tours or walks and talks.”
Tours of the wetlands already happen each spring during peak bird migration.
Every year, more than 100 types of birds pass through or nest in the wetlands. They’re joined by beavers, river otters, Western painted turtles, rough-skinned newts and Pacific tree frogs. A few invasive species, such as nutria (farmed nearby from the 1930s to the 1950s) and bullfrogs, round out the wildlife roster.
Guderyahn has seen how off-leash dogs, zooming bicycles and curious but uninformed visitors can disturb basking turtles or ground-nesting birds. But she believes that site-specific environmental education will result in the wetlands being protected by everyone—from natural resource scientists to the little girl who watches over a turtle nest in her backyard.
Work so far
Metro and Gresham are already working to return the wetlands and the hillside above them to a more natural state. Before work began, however, targets for restoration had to be honed.
“By June we had identified three restoration targets: the wetlands, the turtles and the upland habitat,” said Kate Holleran, a natural resources scientist with Metro.
With these restoration targets, this past summer Metro crews cut invasive Himalayan blackberry and mowed reed canarygrass, tansy and bull thistle that had infested the former pastures. Crews also cut invasive hawthorn, laurel and holly from the second-growth Douglas fir forest.
Herbicides were applied to stumps to help ensure the invasive plants don’t return, and plants in the pastures were spot-sprayed in early fall.
An old household dumpsite was cleaned up, hazardous materials removed, and farm structures, including three homes and concrete pads, were razed. Soil that had been compacted by decades of farm use was ripped to make it more arable and receptive to plantings of native seeds next spring.
Wetland restoration will be more complex, but may look similar to work done in the 1990s to the formerly ditched area just to the south: water was freed from the ditch and now meanders in oxbows and braided channels.
While the land shucks its agricultural past, Metro and Gresham will be working with neighbors and the Friends of Grant Butte Wetlands to determine how best to integrate the needs of wildlife with the need for access to trails and learning.
The Friends of Grant Butte Wetlands’ Facebook page welcomes new members and lists goals neighbors have for the butte, including clean water, biodiversity, access to nature, environmental education and urban tranquility. The East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District will also be involved in plans for programs at the site.