Nestled in the farmlands of south Hillsboro, adjacent to the Tualatin River, sits over 100 acres of thriving wetland habitat. Ducks gather in the ponded areas, scrounging for food and resting between flights. The bright pink flowers of rose spiraea plants attract pollinators in summer, while leafy willows cast shade over slow-moving water. Tall, dead trees remain standing among the wetlands, providing perches and nesting areas for raptors and songbirds. In a region that has lost an extensive amount of wetlands to development, this preserve provides an essential refuge for wildlife.
Before 2008, it all looked very different. The land was farmed with annual row crops, and aggressive non-native plant species were creeping in from the field edges. The landowner, Dave Heikes, who operates a u-pick berry farm nearby, found that the lower parts of his land would flood annually. “The farm ground was too wet to get much of a yield,” shared Heikes. So, instead of fighting against the wet conditions to continue farming, Heikes decided to follow the land’s lead and restore it to a healthy wetland.
This land is now protected forever by a conservation easement.
A conservation easement is a voluntary, legal agreement used to preserve a parcel of land for a specific purpose, such as wildlife habitat, historic preservation, or agriculture. Easements are established as a partnership between a property owner and an easement holder. Once it’s in place, the land cannot be subdivided, developed, or subjected to major alterations.
This easement is intended to preserve wildlife habitat. Heikes worked with a restoration contractor, Green Banks LLC, to restore the wetland and a small stream to create a mitigation bank. A mitigation bank is used to offset the loss of habitat that occurs during development projects. If developers destroy wetland to build a project, they are required by law to create wetland somewhere else. A mitigation bank is way to compensate for the impacted habitat.
“To me it’s been a win-win,” shared landowner Dave Heikes, “to be able to give back to nature and we’ve been able to get paid.”
As a certified conservation organization, Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District was well-suited to partner with Heikes to manage the easement and ensure that the restored wetland is protected forever. Partnerships between private landowners and conservation organizations are key to protecting important habitat in our region. As the easement holder, Tualatin SWCD is committing to managing the property long-term which includes easement enforcement, monitoring, and reporting.
Wetlands provide important habitat for wildlife and store water on the landscape.
Wetlands are home to an astounding number of plants, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals, and insects. They are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world. By producing vegetation (food) at a fast rate they can support an abundance of animal species. The saturated soils create a nutrient-rich environment, allowing plants and wildlife to flourish.
The Tualatin Valley is within the Pacific Flyway migration corridor. Every year, over a billion birds fly along this route as they head north in the spring and south in the fall. Even before the restoration process began, the flooded parts of Heikes’s property would attract migrating ducks. “I always like to see the ducks getting their groceries before they fly south. We had hundreds of mallards nesting down there.”
Wetlands help improve water quality as well. Wetlands capture and slow the movement of rainwater. When this happens, pollution and sediment settle out, instead of flowing downstream. By staying put, water has more time to soak into the soil and replenish groundwaterGroundwater Water held underground in the soil or in crevices of rock.. Groundwater reserves are critical for maintaining an adequate water supply throughout dry months.
Transforming the farmland back to a natural area required extensive work over ten years.
Restoration work began in 2008 and included:
- Excavating twenty acres of high ground to create the lower elevations needed for a wetland.
- Removing over thirty acres of reed canary grass, an invasive plant that clogs wetlands.
- Planting an abundance of native wetland plants, shrubs, and trees.
- Plugging a mile-long drainage ditch and re-routing the water to follow the historic route of the creek that crossed the property before it was farmed. A log jam was constructed to slow the water down even more. This helps the property hold more water during winter storms, reducing flooding downstream.
Natural areas and working lands create a mosaic of habitat in the Tualatin Valley.
Natural areas often provide direct benefits to nearby agricultural operations by creating a refuge for pollinators that will visit croplands, and by storing water that might otherwise be flooding farms or homes downstream. The trees and shrubs in a natural area can act as a buffer to pollution that might be moving through water or blowing across the land.
“We are lucky to live in a place with a patchwork of beautiful open spaces,” says Nicole Ruggiero, a conservation specialist at Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District. “This includes working lands like farms and forests, and natural lands, like these wetlands, set aside for wildlife. Not only does a wetland like this provide habitat, but it complements the nearby farms by providing floodwater storage and water filtration for the Tualatin River.”
Protecting natural areas in Washington County is a group effort.
Since the 1850s, much of the Willamette Valley has seen a significant reduction in important wildlife habitat. The majority of remaining habitat is located on private lands, making landowners important participants in wildlife conservation.
Heikes finds satisfaction knowing that his property plays a crucial role in supporting wildlife in the Tualatin Valley. “I see ducks in the parking lots around places like Beaverton Creek and Fanno Creek wondering where all the water went. I’m glad we have parts of the county like this where they can still go!”
“We are grateful for people like Dave who choose to protect these places for future generations,” says Ruggiero.