A community’s health can be measured by its wealth of wild places, and in western Washington County you can discover where the quiet life is prized by its wildness.

If you’re lucky, you may cross paths with wildlife photographer Steve Halpern. He travels this way each week and takes a deep breath to savor a place that’s meant for the quiet times. “In order to do bird photography, you have to have an extraordinary tolerance for frustration,” said the longtime photographer. “You have to have high patience, be willing to endure perhaps cold and heat and bugs and remember that none of that shows up in the picture.”

What does show up in Halpern’s wonderful bird photographs are moments set in a place you’ve likely never seen or heard much about: Fernhill Wetlands near Forest Grove, Oregon.

You may find it surprising that so much wild– nearly 800-acres – is just thirty minutes west of Portland. Once considered a ‘wasteland,’ the local community thought there had to be a better way and began to change the scene over twenty years ago. The restoration and preservation efforts paid off and today it’s a place where eagles have a home to raise their young and where thousands of waterfowl gather each winter.

Halpern calls Fernhill Wetlands a “birder’s paradise,” yet it’s largely unknown. “I think it’s an amazing thing, not just for the wildlife, but for the city of Forest Grove and for Washington County to have world class wetlands. This is as good and as wonderful a wetlands as you could hope for and it’s really in our own backyards,” he said.

This week, that fine place in our backyards got even better. The landowner, Clean Water Services, embarked on a $12 million project last year to enhance the Fernhill Wetlands property with a more natural job of cleaning wastewater. Three acres of the site (and there’s much more on the way) have been transformed into Fernhill Gardens, a site marked by massive boulders, huge trees and nearly 60,000 wetland shrubs and plants.

The garden is a place that people will certainly want to visit – crowned by two massive wooden bridges that invite and entice visitors down the trail. Water Resources Manager Jared Kinnear added, “It’s a win-win for the water, win-win for the habitat and really, offers amenities for the people too.”

Local people like Debby de Carlo (a member of the local Friends of Fernhill Wetlands) agreed that the new garden will be a valuable asset to the community and to the wildlife that live here. “This place is like a silver lining in Oregon’s rainy winters,” said de Carlo. “You see more variety of ducks here in the winter and when I’m out in a natural place like this, I forget about myself. It’s almost like a meditation to be out here surrounded by wildness.”

Halpern agreed and said that as more folks discover Fernhill, more people will come to appreciate what it offers: “It’s a place where our national bird has successfully come back from the brink of extinction. That’s really a remarkable thing and it’s good to know there’s still something wild out here.”

About the Author: Grant McOmie

Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.

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