After taking care of Newell Creek Canyon for more than a decade, Adam Stellmacher can give two radically different tours of the forest that unfurls along the eastern edge of Oregon City. He'll show you a majestic grove of Western red cedar trees, tell tales of coyotes and deer and herons, lead you down a zig-zagging trail to a stream he affectionately named Tumble Creek. But he can't ignore the overturned shopping carts, fast food wrappers and beer cans, tents, smoldering rings of fire, the unauthorized trails he closes only to find a new one built 10 feet away.
This year, the region is invited to help reconcile these dueling versions of Newell Creek – to transform it from a natural area with a lot of potential and a lot of problems into a beloved destination. "Nobody knows about this place. That's what keeps me going," says Stellmacher, Metro's lead natural resource technician. "This is really a showcase place, and it's a great story."
Newell Creek Canyon has a readymade audience, surrounded by Oregon City neighborhoods and Clackamas Community College. But it's easy to miss the natural area as you drive down Beavercreek Road, a busy suburban thoroughfare where you can get an oil change, a tattoo or a workout. Behind businesses, the land slopes toward Newell Creek; fir and maple trees rise toward the sky.
"Wherever you approach Oregon City from, you don't see it until you're almost on top of it because there are a lot of trees and neighborhoods. It's pretty well disguised," says Oregon City Mayor Doug Neeley. "So the opportunities abound in the urban forest."
Determined to prevent development that could damage the watershed, neighbors helped campaign for Metro's 1995 bond measure to protect nature across the Portland metropolitan area. Sha Spady walked door to door with her 135-pound Rottweiler-German shepherd mix toting a "vote yes" placard, and helped install a solar-paneled sign along Oregon 213. As cars sped by at night, "Save Newell Creek Canyon" beamed from the dark forest.
The bond measure passed, and Metro swiftly began buying land. "This was really Metro coming in to save the day," says Spady, who lives along the canyon on a farm her family bought during the 1940s. "But Metro saved the day because citizens of Oregon City and Clackamas County rallied to get the votes and the support to pass the bond measure."
Over the course of two bond measures and nearly two decades, Metro's Newell Creek Canyon natural area expanded to 215 acres. It features some of the region's most spectacular wildlife. On one dark, still night years ago , a cougar ran up to Spady. During a tour, red-legged frogs appeared as if on cue. And, one morning, sunlight bathed a white downy owl perched on a tree stump, calling for its mother as Spady watched in awe.
Wildlife will only multiply as the habitat gets healthier. The Greater Oregon City Watershed Council launched a major restoration project in 2012, in partnership with Oregon City, Metro, private landowners and the Clackamas County Soil and Water Conservation District. This spring, they'll finish their work to control invasive plants and replace them with species that belong in a Pacific Northwest forest. People don't realize what a treasure they have at Newell Creek Canyon, says Rita Baker, coordinator of the watershed council. "When you drive up 213, you see, ‘Oh, look at all the pretty trees.' But you don't really understand that, at the bottom, is a creek."
Restoring the canyon will require a close look at the human environment, too. Like many urban natural areas, Newell Creek provides an outlet valve for the community's transient population – and the camping, litter and habitat impacts that come along with homelessness. Stellmacher and his Metro teammates work with local police and social service agencies to move campers. They helped one couple transition to an apartment after living in the forest for more than a decade. But for every success story, problems accumulate: during a single volunteer work day, 35 shopping carts were hauled out of the canyon.
Without resources to plan the future of Newell Creek Canyon, Metro did its best to respond to problems day-to-day. "The thing is, you've got to be persistent," Stellmacher says. "You've got to stay with it."
The possibilities changed last year, when voters approved a levy to help care for regional parks and natural areas – and improve them not only for wildlife habitat and water quality, but also for visitors. Newell Creek Canyon is one of the most significant projects underway. During the next year, Metro will engage the community in a long-term vision: What activities should be allowed? What would make you feel safe here? How can we protect the forest while allowing people to explore it?
It's important to find a balance, says neighbor William Gifford, who walks in the canyon daily. "By putting the trails in, you bring more people in that can destroy things. The flipside is, if you don't bring people down there, they don't know what it is they're protecting."
After a plan comes together, Metro will invest in the ingredients to carry it out. But even with new trails, signs or native plants, Newell Creek Canyon will never be "done." Like all natural areas, Spady says, it will change over time.
"The biggest legacy we could leave after 25 years is, we've done nothing except provided the opportunity to heal," she says. "And this is what it looks like."