Re-Wilding Wildboy Creek - Columbia Land Trust
The spillway at Kwoneesum Dam. Photo by Lenkerbrook Photography
Columbia Land Trust and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe are partnering to remove a dam and restore Wildboy Creek at the headwaters of the Washougal River.

On a warm July morning, Columbia Land Trust Forest Conservation Director Cherie Kearney and I meet at a downtown coffee shop in Washougal, where it seems everybody knows her name. We head north out of town, our route hugging the bends of the Washougal River, passing turnouts for swimming holes on one side and signs for new housing developments on the other. Eventually, we make our way through a patchwork of dense forests and clear-cuts and arrive at a serene lake formed by Kwoneesum Dam.

As we walk out across the dam, the scenic waterfall pouring from its spillway to Wildboy Creek below distracts from the sheer scale of the structure. The dam underfoot stands 45 feet tall.

In 1965, the Camp Fire organization built Kwoneesum Dam at the confluence of three creeks in order to create a recreational lake for a new girls’ camp. Girls from across the region spent summers swimming, sailing, and canoeing there until the late 1980s, when the camp closed and the land was sold to an industrial timber company. Today the lake and the dam persist, blocking endangered Coho salmon and steelhead from seven miles of upstream tributaries while also holding back valuable sediment from downstream fish habitat. Despite its pleasant surface appearance, the shallow, stagnant lake increases the river system’s water temperature, which also hinders fish and other wildlife.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Land Trust were alerted to the property sale and saw the opportunity to collaborate. The Tribe’s Natural Resources Department had been doing restoration work elsewhere on the Washougal and knew that the dam was a single barrier imperiling the ecological health of the entire system and the recovery of culturally important salmon and steelhead. For Columbia Land Trust, the Washougal River is a priority conservation area. Chances to both purchase a large forest and remove a dam in the watershed don’t arise often.

Based on the shared vision of a restored and revitalized Washougal watershed, the two groups formed a partnership: The Land Trust will raise funds and build support to buy the 1,300 acres of forestland that includes Kwoneesum Lake, and the Tribe will play a leading role in raising the funds for restoration and dam removal.

“The Washougal River is more than just a location that I’m familiar with,” says Peter Barber, restoration ecologist with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. Like Cherie Kearney, Barber refers to the Washougal River as his home waters. “It’s like a good friend you’ve known all your life. It’s my home away from home, and I dearly wish to see it in a healthier state.” Barber grew up swimming, inner-tubing, exploring, and steelhead fishing in the same river he’s working to restore today. Both he and Kearney appreciate how much their local communities and constituencies—ranging from elected officials and tribal leaders to neighbors and business owners—support this project. The river not only provides drinking water to the City of Washougal but also is cherished by locals and the broader region for its scenic beauty and recreation value. “Everyone sees a little bit of what they love in this project,” says Kearney. “For some, it’s the vision, for others it’s the process of removing a dam and radically transforming nature for the better, and for others it’s about habitat and fish, seeing salmon return to their ancient spawning grounds.”

In addition to restoring this section of the river system, the Land Trust will implement a conservation forestry approach that combines forest practices with watershed health. The site is in the heart of a timber-dependent rural community, and Land Trust forest management will contribute to regional jobs, mills, and tax revenues.

For the region’s rivers and forests, the goal of both partners is a return to a more natural state—a place where water once again meanders as it did for millennia, a place where the river courses without impediment for salmon, a place where wildlife have room to roam, a place integral to the unique identity of the Cowlitz people.

The Land Trust has a narrow window of opportunity to conserve the land at Wildboy Creek. We have already raised more than half of the $3.8 million necessary to acquire the land and implement its land management and restoration strategy. Our goal is to purchase the dam in early 2020, then work with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to remove the dam over the next two to three years.

For Kearney, the Washougal River is a thread that ties her life’s work in conservation to the place where she put down roots 30 years ago—the place where she knows the names of trees, the birds, and the people, and counts them all as community. “This is a 500-year vision to take a place like this and see it into the future so it can be wild. We have very little wilderness and very little wild-ness left in our lives,” says Kearney. “I appreciate that it’s a challenging time for us all as we consider the future of the planet. I also think it’s a call to action to restore places like this.”

Learn more about the importance of restoring Wildboy Creek in our interview with Tanna Engdahl, a spiritual leader with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.

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You can conserve places like this.

As we enter this season of giving, you can make a difference for the people and the wildlife of the Northwest by making a gift to Columbia Land Trust. Your support makes projects like the restoration of Wildboy Creek and the Washougal River possible throughout the Columbia River region. Make a gift today.