The Making of Tualatin Hills Nature Park by the Friends of the Tualatin Hills Nature Park
A small group of "thoughtful, committed people" planted the seed for the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District in the 1950s. Elsie Stuhr and Margaret Sklensky sent 104 letters to Washington County organizations addressed to “fellow parkless suburbanites.” In response to the letters, 61 people showed up for a meeting to organize a park district.
The Tualatin Hills Nature Park began in a similar way. The nature park’s 222 acres of wetlands, forests, and streams shelter insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The 200,000+ annual visitors owe a debt of thanks to a handful of fiercely dedicated community members and the voters who supported them in the 1970’s. Without their determination and persistence, the park might have been developed into housing or commercial use and its wildlife habitat lost forever.
In the early 1970s, developers were rapidly buying greenspaces in Washington County. Barbara Wilson worked across the street from St. Mary’s Woods, owned by the Archdiocese of Portland. Looking out her window, she had a vision of making it a nature park where deer could browse and people could experience nature. She felt an urgency to act because she knew that once the land was sold and developed, it would be too late to save the wild space. Barbara got elected to the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District’s board of directors in 1972. As a naturalist and wildlife advocate, she felt it was important for the park district to have natural areas, riparian zones, and greenways.
Seventeen years after its founding, the board began discussing its ten-year vision. As the population of Beaverton and Washington County was growing rapidly, the park district saw a huge interest in its facilities. Around the same time, Larry Cole (who would later become Beaverton mayor) was leading a parallel group advocating for a regional park. The park would include recreational facilities, ball fields, gathering places for picnics and family reunions, and a large natural area.
Voters passed a $10 million bond measure for the park district in 1974 to fund several projects, including a recreation center, swimming pools, and neighborhood parks. Although greenspaces and a nature park were not mentioned in the ballot measure, the park district appointed a land acquisition committee to determine the best places for new parks. Larry Cole served on that committee and found an opportunity to pitch the regional park idea to the park district.
Several groups were working separately toward the same goal: the League of Women Voters, the Beaverton Optimists, and the Beaverton Planning Commission were all interested in developing a nature park. Eventually the groups came together to turn their shared vision into a reality.
In 1975, the City of Beaverton listed a regional park in its land use planning and capital improvement program and earmarked $400,000 to $500,000 as matching funds for a regional park. The Nature Conservancy also began cataloging significant habitats in St. Mary’s Woods, concluding the site was unique because of its many different habitats in a compressed area and underlying hydrologic conditions. The park’s habitat mosaic can rarely be found elsewhere.
In the meantime, Barbara knew they had to buy the land before it was too late. She formed the St. Mary’s Woods Committee to explore options to buy the land before it was gobbled up by developers. The committee drew regular people who shared a passion: teachers, hikers, ecologists, and birders.
The park district had already tried to purchase 800 acres for a regional park along the Fanno Creek corridor. They proposed a $3 million bond measure to voters in 1971 to purchase 300 acres, but the voters turned it down.
Kevin Harding wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, concerned about the bond issue that the parks district just passed. “It seemed to me they were using most of the money for the regional sports complex, swimming pools, and ball fields...I thought we needed to be using some of that money to lock up some land that was disappearing quickly,” he said in a 2020 interview. Barbara Wilson tracked Kevin down and invited him to a meeting at her house.
Knowing that the funds were not exclusively available from the park district, the community members tried to acquire the property for a state park. The Oregon State Parks Advisory Committee originally approved funding, but subsequent state budgets cuts removed the allocated funds ...yet one more discouraging development for the committee.
The committee members visited countless community groups, trying to solicit energy and political support for the park. They shared details of the park’s unique habitat mosaic and incredibly diverse plant and tree communities that do not usually live next to each other.
The St. Mary’s Woods Committee worked diligently with the park district, agreeing to take a chance on proposing a bond measure to the voters for $5.5 million to create the nature park. It passed with 58 percent approval, signaling the community’s support.
The Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District finally acquired 180 acres from the archdiocese of Portland and the dream of preserving a natural area blossomed. The park district received the deed in January 1981.
Between purchasing the land and opening the park, 17 long years passed. From 1980 to 1982, the same core group of neighbors who had been involved from the beginning began working on the master planning. In 1984, St. Mary’s Woods officially became the Tualatin Hills Nature Park.
Volunteers and students cleared brush and built trails. Merlo High School students came to the site to study and volunteer, and the park received a $5,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife for community service and work projects. Another bond levy passed to fund the nature center, make trail improvements, and add interpretive signs. Portland General Electric gave the park an additional 15 acres in 1995. Finally, on April 18, 1998, the Tualatin Hills Nature Park opened on Earth Day.
“Without the passion and endless efforts of a group of everyday concerned community members, this park would not exist,” said Rod Coles, chair of the Friends of Tualatin Hills Nature Park Steering Committee. “This would most likely be a stream corridor through a housing development with maybe some light industry. Because of the vision of those people 50 years ago, we now have 220 acres here where we can hear the birds. We can watch the deer. We can see the beaver activity. I am grateful for their passion and willingness to get involved.”
Since the nature park was founded, the public has become convinced of the need to preserve natural spaces. The park district is committed to environmental education and preserving greenspaces throughout Washington County. The dedicated people who felt called to create a nature park acted well ahead of the broadly supported Metropolitan Greenspaces Master Plan, founded in 1992, which details the vision, goals, and organizational framework of a regional system of natural areas, trails, and greenways for wildlife and people in the Portland region. Now the Portland area has many prime natural areas for the public to visit and learn about nature, including the Tualatin Hills Nature Park, thanks to the advance vision and commitment of the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District.
Long-time volunteer Margaret Armstrong believes we should never take this park for granted. “This park is here because people fought for years through many layers of bureaucracy, funding hurdles, and trying to get a seller, to make a natural area that was worth saving,” said Margaret. “This park makes me most proud when I see how well the habitat is maintained. It's a treasured part of the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District and the community.”
The park didn’t stop growing after the grand opening, and the community members didn’t stop advocating for nature. The Make Our Park Whole movement in 1999 ensured additional acreage being sold by the archdiocese was preserved as a natural area.
“If you have a dream that requires participation from a government agency, don't give up,” advises Barbara Wilson. Barbara’s perseverance worked when she showed up at the board meetings over and over again. “The accomplishment was worth everything I could give it. It was a love of the land and a love of the ecosystem. If the goal is worth the fight, then bring it on.”
Margaret Armstrong commented, “It just proves that a group of people with enough passion can do almost anything.”
Celebrating 20 years since the grand opening, Grant Butler of The Oregonian wrote, “The park is home to reptiles, birds, mammals and insects that are native to Oregon, and during a walk along its nearly five miles of trails, you might see deer, rabbits, woodpeckers, hawks, and even the occasional bald eagle...It has grown in popularity during that time, and today is a favorite destination for cross-country runners from the nearby Nike campus.”
Making of A Nature Park
Early 1970s: Planting the seeds
Barbara Wilson formed St. Mary's Woods Committee with hopes of acquiring the property.
Larry Cole led a parallel group advocating for a regional park.
In 1974, voters approved a $10M bond for Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, including $410,000 to create a nature park.
1975-79: Encountering setbacks
City of Beaverton earmarked funds for a regional park, and The Nature Conservancy began categorizing areas of significance in St. Mary's Woods' habitat mosaic.
The determined citizens combined their groups into a committee to lobby for a new state park.
Although the state originally approved the funds, the funds were subsequently slashed from the budget.
1980-81: Citizens Rise Up
The St. Mary's Woods Committee teamed with the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District to propose a $5.5M bond measure to voters.
The voters approved it!
The park district purchased 180 acres, one of the last undeveloped woodlands in eastern Washington County.
1981-1993: Patient Cultivation
St. Mary's Woods became Tualatin Hills Nature Park in 1984.
The park district hired a consulting firm to produce a master plan, approved in 1984.
It took 17 years of work for the park to come to fruition.
Hundreds of volunteers, including high school students, cleared brush and built trails.
1994-1998: Building A Nature Park
In 1994, residents passed a bond levy to update the master plan to include accessible trails, build the nature center, make trail improvements, and add signage.
Volunteers continued to work to create the beautiful park that exists today.
In 1995, the park grew by an additional 15 acres with land acquired from PGE.
April 18, 1998: Grand Opening
The Tualatin Hills Nature Park and nature center opened on Earth Day, April 18, 1998.
The grand opening featured speeches; tree planting; exhibits by the Audubon Society, Oregon Zoo, Metro Greenspaces; music and family activities; and guided art, birding, and nature walks.
In the early 2000s, the park added 25 more acres.
Now, 50 years after determined community members set out to preserve a beautiful greenspace, 150,000 people come each year to enjoy this gift to the community.