Wildlife, Visitors and Floodwaters Return to Steigerwald Refuge in SW Washington, Open After 2-Year Closure


Trails flooded, bridges were impassable and wetlands were inundated during an unseasonably rainy June, but that was all good news for the folks at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Located on the Washington side of the Columbia River just outside Washougal, the wildlife refuge reopened in May after a two-year closure to renovate and restore the area, now designed to contain seasonal floodwaters that provide a richer habitat for the plants and animals that call it home.

Doug Kreuzer, a restoration ecologist for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, said the heavy rains were timed perfectly, providing an early test of the $31 million Steigerwald Restoration Project.

“It’s pretty exciting to be wrapping up this construction project and seeing the fruits of our labor,” Kreuzer said. “It’s doing what it was designed to do.”

Before white settlers descended upon the lower Columbia River, the floodplains at Steigerwald Lake were rich habitat for salmon, waterfowl, amphibians and other animals. In the 1960s, crews constructed levees on the river, cutting off the wetlands from their source.

Those levees have created not only environmental concerns but have also resulted in flooding along Gibbons Creek – a tributary of the Columbia River that flows through Steigerwald Lake, which had a tendency to get backed up during heavy rains, Kreuzer said.

By reconnecting Gibbons Creek with the Columbia River and reconstructing the refuge, officials aimed to both mitigate flooding and revitalize the habitat for wildlife, all while continuing to offer a beautiful place for recreation at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge.

Juliette Fernandez, manager of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge complex in Washington, which includes Steigerwald Lake, said it was the largest restoration project to date on the lower Columbia River, restoring 956 acres of habitat by removing 2.2 miles of levees, while adding more than a mile of walking trails and building an entirely new parking lot.

The refuge has reported an immediate impact.

In addition to the salmon that are once again spawning at Steigerwald Lake, there have been sightings of uncommon birds like white-faced ibis, black-necked stilts and great-tailed grackles, Fernandez said. And following the wildlife have been flocks of people – both newcomers drawn in by the restoration project and locals who have been visiting the refuge for years.

“The turnout was beyond anything that I expected,” Fernandez said. “We didn’t expect for people to show up in the numbers that they have, and we’re just so grateful for all of the love that the community has for it.”

Steigerwald Lake isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as some of the more popular Columbia River Gorge attractions nearby (on the Washington side of the river it gets overshadowed by places like Beacon Rock and Dog Mountain, which offer popular hikes and expansive views over the river), but it nevertheless remains a reliably busy spot.

Fernandez said that’s largely due to support from the local community in Camas and Washougal, for whom the wildlife refuge is simply a convenient place to get outside, but as she’s walked the trails, she’s also spoken with people from other parts of the Portland metropolitan area, as well as visitors from around the world.

“Just walking those trails and being out in nature, it’s just sort of a universal language,” Fernandez said. “It’s such a neat opportunity right in people’s backyards to come out and engage.”

The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is open 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; located on the south side of Washington State Route 14, about 2.2 miles from downtown Washougal; 360-887-4106; fws.gov/refuge/steigerwald-lake.