A Confluence of Water, Habitat and Healing 

The Fernhill complex sits along the southern edge of Forest Grove—located 25 miles west of Portland—between Clean Water Services water treatment plant, the Tualatin River and Gales Creek. It includes more than 750 acres of wetlands, uplands, forests and productive farmlands, as well as a cutting-edge natural treatment system. Though the site has been a big draw for nature enthusiasts for more than 20 years, over the last five years a major transformation has been underway.

The Forest Grove wastewater treatment plant and the associated lagoons have been managed by Clean Water Services (CWS) since the 1970s; the natural areas since 2000; the Fernhill Water Garden since 2012; and large-scale natural treatment since 2014. Adjoining agricultural lands are leased to local farmers and irrigated with recycled water supplied by CWS.  Since the late 1990s, Clean Water Services has convened the major stakeholders, including the City of Forest Grove, Fernhill Wetlands Council, Audubon Society of Portland, Pacific University and community members, toward a cooperative management approach to this diverse and special place.

Thanks to its proximity to the Tualatin River, Gales Creek and other high-quality habitat, Fernhill is attractive for migratory and resident birds throughout the year. During spring and fall migration, even the casual visitor can easily spot sandpipers, mergansers and bald eagles. Any time of year, photographers, schoolchildren and hikers can find something of interest to snap a photo of or study at this special place.

Within a 1.5-mile radius of Fernhill, there are five major publicly owned natural areas, as well as several large ecological enhancement projects on private farm lands along the Tualatin River. Additionally, more than 2,000 acres of conservation lands are less than five miles away at the US Fish and Wildlife Services’ Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Metro’s Chehalem Ridge Natural Area. These natural areas and ecological enhancement projects serve as important focal points in the landscape. 

The Site

First planting: 2006
Size: 292 acres
Stream length:  15,985 feet
Total to date:  1,360,731 plants
Plant communities: Emergent Marsh, Forested Wetland, Riparian Forest, Scrub Shrub


The Challenge

The complexity of the challenge—and the richness of the opportunity—is the site’s role in water resources management for the entire Tualatin Watershed. Over the last several decades, Washington County has enjoyed a growing economy and strong population growth. Technology, health and other business sectors continue to prosper. As people move to the area for jobs and the high quality of life, the region’s water treatment capacity needs also increase. The community had to figure out how to significantly increase treatment capacity while keeping costs down and amplifying the investments made in water treatment for broader ecological gain. 


The Transformation


Through a collaborative process, Clean Water Services, the City of Forest Grove and many community stakeholders found a way to serve both people and wildlife with a positive outcome for watershed health. Areas known as the Barney Mitigation Wetlands, Shorebird Swale and Dabbler’s Marsh, as well as riparian areas along the Tualatin River and Gales Creek, are being enhanced with native trees, shrubs, and understory herbaceous species to enhance water quality, along with habitat diversity and function. 

The former treatment lagoons were transformed from rip-rapped ponds into an aesthetically-beautiful, dynamic Natural Treatment System that filters water through 90 acres of native wetland plants, cooling and cleansing the water, while also providing valuable habitat for wildlife. The wetlands were designed with varying water depths to maximize habitat complexity and treatment capability. Approximately, 750,000 native plants and 3.5 billion native seeds; and 180 habitat features were installed to increase floodplain and habitat complexity. The habitat features provide floodplain roughness, bird perches and turtle basking logs. These design features, plus the creation of mudflats and shoreline habitats, are designed to bring greater bird and wildlife diversity to the wetland complex. Working with the local birding community, the Audubon Society of Portland has led a community science effort at this site over the past several years to monitor bird response to the recent restoration.  Preliminary findings indicate that the abundance of some wetland-dependent species like Virginia rail and sora has increased dramatically.

Fernhill now provides research and study opportunities for innovations in water recovery and renewal, environmental education for local schools and underserved populations, and the chance for ongoing development of programs of interest to the community. The facilities are available year-round for recreation, relaxation and peaceful respite. New features include a covered picnic area with scenic views, the Water Garden with footpaths, arched bridges and rock features that create waterfalls to aerate the water, and an ADA accessible parking lot and trail. 

Already a premier destination for outdoor and nature enthusiasts, Fernhill is a model for collaboration with amazing results for people and wildlife. 

This Fernhill profile covers a series of interconnected projects.
View project-by-project statistics.

Explore Fernhill at fernhillnts.org.