14 Refuges: Portland-Vancouver Urban Wildlife Refuge Project

A Tale of Two Cities…and Six National Wildlife Refuges

Portland, Oregon is a bustling port town that’s experiencing rapid growth and faces many challenges around striking a balance between preservation of public lands, investing in communities, and promoting economic investment. Across the Columbia River in Washington, the city of Vancouver is becoming a magnet for people moving to the region for work and retirement. But it isn’t just the vibrant communities and amenities that attract people; world-class park systems and access to various public lands are just as important as lively brewpubs and an established music scene, and six national wildlife refuges are among the areas easily accessible to this major metro area.

On the Oregon side, there’s Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge and Wapato Lake NWR, located a short drive from downtown Portland. On the Washington side, there’s Ridgefield and Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuges, along with the Franz and Pierce refuges (not currently open to the public.) As the metro area becomes more dense and green space is reduced, more people are looking outside of the cities for recreational opportunities. In response to these challenges, the Portland-Vancouver Urban Refuge Program has used innovative models that connect refuges with neighborhoods, Friends groups, and community coalitions for effective outreach and engagement.

Here are a few examples of the Portland-Vancouver URP’s community-centered initiatives:

Connecting in Neighborhoods

While everyone is welcome at the Tualatin River NWR, it was purposely-built for wildlife. Most activities that take place center around passive recreation, so visitors are encouraged to leave their bikes, running shoes, and dogs at home. The Wildlife Center has interpretive exhibits on the history, culture, and ecology of the Tualatin River area. There is an accessible year-round trail with three additional miles of seasonal trails that are open in the summer. With downtown Portland so close, there is great reception for Instagram and Facebook photos, and access to apps like iBird.

Environmental education and stewardship are big parts of the refuge’s programming. Educators are encouraged to bring schoolchildren to the refuge during the school year, and the learning continues during the break at Summer Exploration Days. The rainy winter brings the Puddle Stompers program, a volunteer-led day of hikes, crafts, and stories for preschoolers where they are encouraged to get dirty.

Working with Coalitions & Friends Groups

Volunteers are the lifeblood of Tualatin River NWR. They run the programs, manage the visitor center, work with the researchers and maintenance crew, and they also roam the trails, helping visitors. “We don’t do anything here without our volunteers,” said Eva Kristofik, Deputy Project Leader of Tualatin River NWR.

For older visitors who want to get their hands dirty and help out, there are Second Saturday Work Parties. 11 months of the year (December is an off month), rain or shine, volunteers show up to help clean up and restore the refuge. There’s no need to sign up and tools are provided.  

Refuges are for Everyone

Access Recreation, a local group that provides hiking information to those with disabilities, teamed up with Tualatin River and Steigerwald Lake refuges to document the trails and amenities so people can plan their outings. The Portland-Vancouver UWRP is also a part of the Intertwine Alliance, a group of more than 150 public, private, and nonprofit organizations in the area that advocates for greater connectivity between public lands and creating equitable access. They envision a future where every resident has a natural space to visit close to home, regardless of background.


The Portland-Vancouver Urban Refuge Program is a terrific example of what is possible when it comes to connecting people in highly populated areas with their wildlife refuges, and creating a lasting legacy of stewardship around conservation. If you want to help support or learn more about these refuges and Friends groups, consider donating or volunteering your time during your next visit to Portland!

Kelly Dudzik is a freelance writer/blogger who contributes to NWRA’s Urban Refuge Program’s campaign series. 

Portland-Vancouver Urban Refuge Program

NWRA’s Urban Refuge Program – Protecting our Conservation Future strives to reach beyond refuge boundaries to engage with and connect people of all ages to nature and our Refuge System.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2018/08/portland-vancouver-urban-wildlife-refuge/

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