Smith and Bybee Wetlands
It’s early August, and water levels at the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area are so low that to reach the edge of Smith Lake from the canoe launch just off N Marine Drive, we have to haul our kayaks through 80 yards of shoe-sucking mud. But we’re lucky to be paddling at all. Had it not been for 2008’s heavy rains, says Troy Clark, the mustachioed co-founder of Friends of Smith and Bybee Lakes and my guide for the day, this place would be a mudflat by now—great for shorebirds, but not so much for boats.
Our small flotilla of kayaks pushes off, and soon we’re breaking up schools of fish that leap around our bows, heading across the water toward the hills of Forest Park in search of the channel that leads to neighboring Bybee. At 2,000 acres, Smith and Bybee may be the largest freshwater wetlands inside a city’s limits in the United States. Each winter the lakes fill with water, and each summer they drain completely—part of their natural hydrology. At least, Clark says, that’s what occurred until 1983, when the Port of Portland installed a dam that turned the wetlands into what Clark calls “two warm-water reservoirs.” Which was not so good for the birds that hunted in the mudflats, but was a boon for another species: carp.
“This place was seething with them, just seething,” Clark says. “You’d see them roiling on the banks, writhing in the mud.” The carp devoured most of the aquatic plants, including the rafts of smartweed that provided habitat for ducks. As a result, the duck populations dwindled and the shorebirds stayed away. In essence, it was your basic man-made, domino-effect, mini-eco-disaster started by a dam.
But in 2004, Metro and the wetlands conservation group Ducks Unlimited replaced the dam with a “water-control structure” with four culverts that could be opened and closed. For the first time in 25 years, water flowed in and out of Smith and Bybee with the seasons. Soon after, the carp population dropped—they can’t survive the low-water summer months, and gates on the culverts prevent their return in winter. A few bunches of smartweed have since cropped up. Willows and wapato are growing in areas once underwater. Shorebirds like long-billed dowitchers are back, and wintering waterfowl have arrived in larger numbers to feast on the seeds of plants re-emerging after years of submersion. It was your basic man-made, domino-effect, eco-recovery that started with a dam’s removal.
As if sensing that Clark’s tale is one of hope for the natural world, birds begin to arrange themselves in avian dioramas around us: Alabaster egrets appear as statues in the distance; a trio of cinnamon teals jets from the water’s surface. Clark, a birding nut (he’s been conducting weekly bird counts in the area for 15 years), cannot contain himself: “A great blue heron and a green heron in one tree! Now this is a great day!” Each year the wetlands host more than 100 species of birds, he tells us.
And yet that doesn’t mean that Smith and Bybee is restored. Soon after we enter the channel, the water disappears under a shaggy carpet of green. “This is the parrot-feather I told you about,” Clark says. I drop behind him as he uses his paddle like a shovel, pushing the weeds out of the way and creating an opening just wide enough for our boats to inch through.
A waterborne plant with wispy leaves that swirl around a stem, parrotfeather is a favorite of aquarium enthusiasts. But it’s also native to the Amazon River, a fact that makes it an intruder to Smith and Bybee. Clark first noticed the stuff on a paddle five years ago, and like the carp before, it bred like crazy, choking out native plants. It’s one of 15 or so nonnative plants, along with purple loosestrife, reed canarygrass, and others, that his group has identified. To deal with the problem, he’s hoping that Metro will create a map of the invasives and develop an eradication plan.
Clark makes the point that the value of Smith and Bybee has only increased as other parts of the Columbia River’s south shore disappear. Some 90 percent of the area’s wetlands are kaput, their waters packed with dredge spoils (or garbage, in the case of the St. Johns Landfill). Clark knows that the wetlands will never be what they were 150 years ago: “I try not to think about what it looked like then,” he says. But at least they’re no longer perceived as useless swamps, impediments to progress, problems to be “fixed.” Today progress means managing the wetlands so that they approximate their original, natural state. And “fixing” Smith and Bybee means undoing some of what’s been done before.