Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bales Wetlands Natural Area

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Our next adventure is another rare excursion into suburbia. This time we're visiting Aloha's Bales Wetlands Natural Area, next to the big strip mall at SW Farmington and Kinnaman. You'll notice that most of these photos are taken while peeking over a chain-link fence. Like the Vanport Wetlands in North Portland (and many other designated wetland areas), the Bales Wetlands are fenced off and not open to the public. No trails, no interpretive signs, nothing. But you're perfectly welcome to come and watch birds from outside the park. Washington County is investigating building a trail through the park to connect the shopping center on one side with the homes and apartments on the other, but that remains at the conceptual stage for the time being. There's also an ongoing SOLV cleanup effort here that began in 2003, pulling up Himalayan blackberries and other invasive plants, and removing nutria that had taken up residence here. SOLV is known primarily for their annual beach cleanup, which is promoted as family fun at the beach for do-gooding Portlanders. Pulling blackberries in a muddy wetland next to a suburban strip mall doesn't have the same sort of cachet, and it probably only attracts hardcore dedicated volunteers.

Aloha's flood-prone and neglected Butternut Creek begins here or somewhere nearby. It flows west past (and sometimes on top of) suburban backyards for a while, similar to SE Portland's Johnson Creek, before entering farm country at the Urban Growth Boundary on SW 209th. It continues from there until it joins the Tualatin River, which in turn flows into the Willamette at West Linn. From there, it's on to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. A portion of the Tualatin River is diverted through a canal to Oswego Lake, so water that begins here may eventually end up as part of the view from someone's gazillion-dollar lake house. As you might recall, Oswego Lake is privately owned by the local uber-HOA, and nonresidents are forbidden to so much as touch the precious (but bacteria-laden) water, on pain of getting tasered or something. Even though some of it is the same exact water that flowed out of Bales Wetlands and past the abandoned fridges and shopping carts in Butternut Creek first. At some point along the way, the water temporarily becomes a pure and precious resource with its own security guards. I suppose the magic happens at the Oswego Canal inlet on the Tualatin, although it's not clear to me what sort of dark arts are involved in the transformation.

The adjacent shopping center dates to 1991, and it replaced the smaller, circa-1973 Farmington Mall. When the "expansion" (more of a tear down and rebuild, as I recall) was proposed in 1990, the owners proposed to fill and build on a portion of the wetlands next door. Neighborhood residents weren't keen on the idea, in part because filling wetlands would likely increase flooding along Butternut Creek, but the county gave tentative approval in June 1990, and final approval in December of that year, with certain conditions around wetlands and traffic congestion. The articles don't spell this out in precise terms, but I suspect the park exists as the wetlands mitigation part of the expansion deal. I also suspect the park's named after the owner of the Bales Thriftway (now Bales Marketplace) grocery store, the anchor tenant of both the original and current shopping centers. Maybe that helped grease the skids to get the deal done, I dunno.

The reason I was out here in the first place is that I was doing a bit of volunteer work. One of the newer tenants in the mini-mall is the little Aloha Community Library, which was founded in 2011. Washington County doesn't have a single county-wide library system the way Multnomah County does. Instead, each city has its own library system, and in turn those systems are members of the Washington County Cooperative Library Service. This provides for common library cards, inter-library loans, and so forth, and funding through county-wide library levies, but cities are still responsible for siting, building and operating their own libraries. This arrangement is fine so long as you live in an incorporated city. Aloha never quite managed to incorporate, and adjacent cities have lost their former interest in annexing the area, so there was never anyone around with the power to create a library. So as usual Aloha just sort of went without, and residents got used to driving to downtown Hillsboro or Beaverton or up to Tanasbourne just to check out a book. That state of affairs went on for decades until someone finally had the bright idea of starting a nonprofit library outside the county system, and then applying to join once it was up and running. So far this seems to be working. In May 2014 the WCCLS system approved the library's application to join, conditional on passage of the upcoming 2015 library levy.

As for why I was volunteering, I actually grew up in Aloha, wayyy out here in the distant 'burbs. The Aloha library would have been a short bike ride from home, if only it had existed when I was a kid. (A helmetless and unsupervised bike ride, I should add, because it was the 1970s). I would have loved it. What's more, they somehow inherited a full set of the short-lived Aloha Breeze newspaper, which was founded in 1974 and absorbed by the Hillsboro Argus in 1983. I asked about it and was told they're looking into scanning the paper and making it available online. Which would be kind of fun, since the paper actually interviewed me (with a photo and everything) when I was in 6th grade and did very well in the school district spelling bee. In any case, if you feel like going to their upcoming book sale fundraiser (September 24th-27th), be aware that I helped semi-alphabetize the fiction section. If you can't find what you're looking for, I'm pretty sure it's that other guy's fault.

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