If you’ve visited Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove, Oregon, lately, you know that it’s changing for the better.
Even before the transformation began in 2012, Fernhill was a beloved destination for birdwatchers, nature photographers and folks seeking outdoor solace. Many had no idea Fernhill Lake was an old sewage lagoon, and most thought the trails and kiosks were city park property.
But here’s the real story.
Fernhill is part of 750+ acres owned by Clean Water Services (CWS), the public water resources management utility for urban Washington County. Beyond the publicly accessible trails that the City of Forest Grove helps maintain, the site includes the Forest Grove Wastewater Treatment Facility, Dabbler’s Marsh and wetland mitigation sites, and agricultural fields.
When CWS decided to build an innovative natural treatment system (NTS) to purify water, we asked nationally recognized wetland scientists and engineers for guidance. This is not the first NTS in the nation, but it is unique in many ways, from the diversity of native plants, to the variety of treatment wetlands, to engaging the community in the design.
Knowing how deeply Fernhill is loved, we sought the advice of bird experts, the City of Forest Grove, Fernhill Wetlands Council, and other stakeholders. Fernhill Lake was drained twice. (One summer it looked like it was being bulldozed to build a big box store!) It wasn’t pretty, but it’s amazing what can be done with 2,000 tons of boulders, a million native plants, 180 dead trees, and precision land-sculpting to create lush wetlands, deep pools, enhanced trails and a tranquil Water Garden.
People visit the Water Garden with its graceful bridges and panoramic views to heal their hearts, minds and bodies. They probably don’t know it was built to help purify water (eventually the waterfalls will aerate the water), and that its designer Hoichi Kurisu of design firm Kurisu International is renowned for creating healing gardens. Pacific University instructor David Boersema (since retired) made the connection, and brought his philosophy class to tour the Water Garden and talk with Kurisu about how the stress of modern life can be relieved by a stroll through intentionally placed boulders, trees and water features.
For quiet enjoyment and to protect wildlife, dogs and bikes are not allowed on the trails. But Fernhill is a natural stop for cyclists riding the Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway. Neighboring TTM Technologies (formerly Viasystems) has a gate to Fernhill, inviting employees to enjoy their breaks outdoors. Dedicated volunteers pouring their hearts into Fernhill include New Season Food employees who show up every month to help maintain the trails, the Gales Creek Garden Club that tends the garden plot by the picnic shelter, and birders who are monitoring avian activity under the direction of the Audubon Society of Portland.
The passion and excitement for Fernhill is palpable. CWS has taken care to honor and address any concerns, and I’ve witnessed remarkable love for this place and its birds and wildlife. That love inspired the annual Birds & Brew Festival hosted by the nonprofit Fernhill Wetlands Council/Friends of Fernhill, a family-friendly event with birding and photography tours, hands-on nature, fun and exploration. This year’s Birds & Brew is set for October 1, and we hope you’ll all mark your calendars and plan to join us.
Fernhill is a National Audubon Society-designated Important Bird Area visited by 200+ species of birds, and we expect the numbers to grow because the 90-acre NTS wetland provides a rich diversity of native plants, open water, varying water depths and shorelines that are prime habitat.
Fernhill is also a magnet for researchers and students of all ages who visit regularly, and in the next few years our aspirations for a research center are likely to be fulfilled. It was never a goal to increase foot traffic at Fernhill, but we knew people would be drawn to it. We’re developing a steward program, and by this summer trained volunteers will be roaming the trails and enriching the experience of visitors.
It’s uncommon to be able to save rate-payer money ($13 million because of Fernhill), meet regulations, increase water supplies, restore the environment, build community capacity, and add beauty, recreation and health—but that’s exactly what’s happening here.
Fernhill is so much more than wetlands and has a whole new identity, so that’s why we’re calling it just “Fernhill" now. Please come to visit, and learn more at fernhillnts.org.