All posts by Bob Passaro

Willamette Valley Oaks: Yesterday and Today

The majestic oak is an iconic symbol of the Willamette Valley with a long-standing cultural significance and valuable ecological function. Early naturalists and settlers to the valley described wide expanses of prairie interspersed with oak … Continue reading Willamette Valley Oaks: Yesterday and Today

The majestic oak is an iconic symbol of the Willamette Valley with a long-standing cultural significance and valuable ecological function. Early naturalists and settlers to the valley described wide expanses of prairie interspersed with oak savanna and oak woodland, which Native Americans maintained by setting low intensity fires. Over thousands of years, a diverse community of animals and plants evolved that could withstand or even depend upon regular fire to thrive. This includes fire-resistant oak.

(Download a PDF brochure about Willamette Valley oak projects.)

wildirisridge The last 150 years have brought dramatic changes to the valley’s ecosystems, and oak and prairie habitats have been among the most affected. After settlers moved into the valley in the mid-1800s and began suppressing fires, many of the oak and prairie dominated landscapes were gradually overtaken by conifers and other woody vegetation or converted to farms and cities.

Oak Species

Two species of oak are native to the Willamette Valley—the Oregon white oak, which can be found throughout the valley, and the California black oak, which extends into the valley as far north as Monroe. Both species are slow growing, need ample sunlight, and can be very long-lived—up to 500 years in suitable conditions. Additional information about these species can be found at Common Trees of the Pacific Northwest.

Willamette Valley Oak Habitats

Oak habitats are often described by the density or canopy cover of trees. Our oak species do not grow well in shade. Therefore, the density of trees can make a difference in the health of the trees in an area.

Areas with widely scattered trees and primarily grass and wildflowers are called savannas.

Oak savanna at Buford Recreation Area (photo: Ed Alverson)
Oak savanna at Buford Recreation Area (photo: Ed Alverson)

Woodlands include more dense stands of oaks with a mixed understory of shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers.

Oak woodland at Coburg Ridge.
Oak woodland at Coburg Ridge.

Wildlife

Oak habitats are home to a diverse array of plants and animals. More than 200 native wildlife species found in the valley are dependent on oaks.

Acorn Woodpecker (photo: Cary Kerst)
Acorn Woodpecker (photo: Cary Kerst)
Slender-Billed Nuthatch (photo: Cary Kerst)
Slender-Billed Nuthatch (photo: Cary Kerst)
Western Gray Squirrel (photo: Cary Kerst)
Western Gray Squirrel (photo: Cary Kerst)

Restoring Oak Habitats

The future of our remaining oak habitats and the species that depend upon them rely on the active management of both public and private lands.

On-going restoration at Wild Iris Ridge natural area, City of Eugene. Thinning and removing crowded trees will allow the oaks to thrive.
On-going restoration at Wild Iris Ridge natural area, City of Eugene. Thinning and removing crowded trees will allow the oaks to thrive.

Common management actions implemented in oak habitats include:

  • Preservation of Legacy Oaks: Preserving “legacy” oak trees is usually the top priority in a restoration project. These large trees can be hundreds of years old and often have expansive branches, abundant nesting cavities, and host wildlife-friendly lichen and mistletoe. To ensure long-term survival, managers will often remove all trees growing into the canopy of legacy oaks.
  • Thinning: Many oak woodlands are too dense and crowded for healthy growing conditions for oaks. Where regular burning is not an option, removing non-native trees, most conifers like Douglas-fir, and in some cases, younger oaks is a common management technique.
  • Controlling Invasive Species: Invasive species can significantly alter the quality of habitats for wildlife and for new oak tree establishment. Typical non-native invasive species targeted for removal include hawthorn, cherry, blackberry, Scotch broom, and a host of non-native grasses and plants.
  • Improving Native Understory: Following thinning operations and invasive species control, oak habitats can be replanted with native grasses, flowers, and shrubs. These plantings provide diverse habitat better suited for native wildlife species and pollinators, in addition to reducing soil erosion.
  • Ecological Burning: Controlled ecological burns are implemented to benefit oak habitats by controlling competing vegetation.
Controlled ecological burn at Mount Pisgah.
Controlled ecological burn at Mount Pisgah.

What Does Oak Restoration Look Like?

Restoring oak savanna and woodland often requires using many techniques found in the timber industry. Restoration and forestry professionals work hand-in-hand to identify the goals of each project and the right methods to get the job done. Trees may be felled by hand, with low-impact forestry equipment, or can be removed with equipment used on small scale timber operations.

These projects are implemented with care to limit impacts to soils and remaining vegetation. Initially, where the equipment has traveled or wood has been piled, there will be exposed soil and downed limbs. It can take from one to several seasons, further treatment, and planting or seeding for the area to begin to resemble the oak habitat intended by the restoration project.

A harvester thinning trees in an oak woodland.
A harvester thinning trees in an oak woodland.

South Willamette Valley Oak Habitats to Visit

Oak Habitat Resources

Buford Recreation Area (photo: Ed Alverson)
Buford Recreation Area (photo: Ed Alverson)

The Rivers to Ridges Controlled Ecological Burn Program

Our Willamette Valley prairies and savannas evolved over thousands of years with regular fires set by the native peoples of this area. Now, regular “disturbance” is needed for the unique assemblage of prairie species to … Continue reading The Rivers to Ridges Controlled Ecological Burn Program

Our Willamette Valley prairies and savannas evolved over thousands of years with regular fires set by the native peoples of this area. Now, regular “disturbance” is needed for the unique assemblage of prairie species to sustain itself. By conducting ecological burns in our prairies, we are restoring a fundamental process of this ecosystem. In 2016, the Rivers to Ridges Partnership will celebrate the 30th anniversary of this successful and safe fire program that dates back to 1986.

Why we use fire

  • Maintain prairie structure. Burning helps prevent woody vegetation such as young trees and invasive blackberries from becoming established and converting our prairies to woodlands.
  • Remove thatch. Grasses and flowers die back annually and over the years create a dense mat of dead vegetation. Thatch removal creates open spaces allowing native plants to germinate and seedlings to grow.
  • Remove fuels from the wildland/urban interface. By conducting ecological burns and removing dead vegetation, we reduce the fuel load, which decreases the risk in the event that a wildfire should occur in our natural areas.

Prairies in our area

  • Less than 1% of historic prairie remains in the Willamette Valley.
  • ODFW’s Conservation Strategy identifies both Willamette Valley prairies and oak savannas as critically in need of conservation and identifies loss of fire as a major contributor to the decline of Willamette Valley prairies.

Benefits of ecological burns

  • Maintain biological diversity
  • Induce germination in some species and flowering and seed set in others
  • Release nutrients in the soil
  • Provides habitat and food resources for wildlife.
  • Prairie structure is important for grassland bird habitat

Burn safety

Rivers to Ridges partners take many measures to ensure safety and minimize adverse effects to the community from ecological burns.

  • Most importantly, we do not burn if the conditions are not optimal! Some years, we don’t burn at all.
  • The Rivers to Ridges partnership successfully completes prescribed fires under very stringent environmental conditions that minimize negative air quality effects.
  • The Rivers to Ridges partnership obtains a permit from the Lane Regional Air Pollution Authority (LRAPA) to conduct burns.
  • We only conduct burns under optimal conditions for minimizing smoke and managing fire behavior – when surface winds and transport winds are headed out of town, and when smoke rises quickly into the upper air column.
  • Highly trained staff conduct the burns – municipal fire departments, BLM, TNC, USFS, and USFWS wildfire trained fire staff.
  • Ecological burns only take place when fuel moisture, relative humidity and wind speed, direction and mixing heights are within the prescription of the burn plan.
  • Notification is made to all neighbors within 0.25 miles of each planned burn well ahead of the burn. Day before or day of phone calls are made to those who would like to know when the burn is happening.
  • Traffic signs warning motor vehicles about the fire are placed at nearby roads, and roads are closed with flaggers and traffic control if needed.

Restoring the Confluence

Rivers to Ridges partners manage over 4,700 acres of river floodplain, prairie and oak savanna habitat at the confluence of the Coast Fork and Middle Fork of the Willamette River. Partners work together to protect … Continue reading Restoring the Confluence

Rivers to Ridges partners manage over 4,700 acres of river floodplain, prairie and oak savanna habitat at the confluence of the Coast Fork and Middle Fork of the Willamette River. Partners work together to protect and restore these high-diversity habitats and preserve the natural benefits of flood control, water filtration, agricultural and fisheries production, recreation and tourism provided by this natural gem in the heart of our community.

A History of partnership and vision

Lane County, The Nature Conservancy, Willamalane Park and Recreation District, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, and Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah work together at the Confluence in the realization of a vision that goes back to 1973 when Governor Tom McCall and the Oregon Legislature approved the purchase of over 3,500 acres. At that time, 2,300 acres were acquired in the area that became Lane County’s Mt. Pisgah/Howard Buford Recreation Area.

In 2010, Governor McCall’s vision was finally realized when The Nature Conservancy acquired the 1,272-acre Wildish parcel, contiguous with the Lane County property. Other public lands adjacent and across the river total over 1,100 acres, and include Willamalane Park and Recreation District’s Dorris Ranch Living History Farm, Clearwater Park and Georgia-Pacific Park, as well as Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Glassbar and Pisgah river access landings.

The resulting landscape of riverfront, forest, prairie and savanna is the largest protected natural area in Eugene-Springfield and a key economic, ecological and recreational anchor for our community.

Restoring the river

Rivers to Ridges partners are not only protecting this important natural area for the community, but working to restore the natural functions and benefits of the habitat. Restoring the floodplain of the Confluence area will have far reaching benefits for the productivity of the river.

Side channels will be reconnected and allow the river to access miles of floodplain habitat. Hundreds of acres of riparian habitat will be replanted with native vegetation. Chinook salmon and steelhead will benefit from reduced stream temperatures and gain critical off-channel habitat and refuge for juvenile fish. Floodplain restoration will also benefit other native species such as Oregon chub, red-legged frog and western pond turtle.

Above the floodplain, restoration of the prairie, oak woodlands and savannas will improve habitats used by over 200 wildlife species.

Get out there

There are many ways to enjoy the Confluence area, so get out there and explore! See Friends of Buford Park and Willamalane websites for recreation ideas at Mt. Pisgah/Howard Buford Recreation Area, Dorris Ranch, Clearwater Park and more.

Coyote Creek: A Biologically Rich Landscape

Rivers to Ridges partners manage more than 1,600 acres of emergent marsh, and forested and riverine wetlands, along with associated upland habitats along Coyote and Spencer creeks upstream of Fern Ridge Reservoir west and southwest … Continue reading Coyote Creek: A Biologically Rich Landscape

Rivers to Ridges partners manage more than 1,600 acres of emergent marsh, and forested and riverine wetlands, along with associated upland habitats along Coyote and Spencer creeks upstream of Fern Ridge Reservoir west and southwest of Eugene. Numerous partners and private landowners are working together to connect and enhance these truly unique habitats, help maintain the special rural character of the area, and provide important wetland functions such as flood storage, water filtration and sediment capture – all within a productive agricultural landscape that is a favorite destination for cyclists and wine enthusiasts.

A history of partnership and vision

Rivers to Ridges partners, along with Ducks Unlimited and the Institute for Applied Ecology, work together with farm, ranch and timberland owners upstream of Fern Ridge Reservoir to creatively address fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and water quality opportunities alongside productive lands that raise food and fiber products for the people of the region, for Oregon and beyond.

Conservation in the Coyote Creek basin began with a partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to manage the Fern Ridge Wildlife Unit in the wake of the construction of Fern Ridge Dam in 1941. The 2001 purchase of the Coyote Prairie property by The Nature Conservancy (who later transferred it to the city of Eugene in 2006), ushered in a new era of conservation investment around Coyote Creek by other Rivers to Ridges partners such as the McKenzie River Trust and the Long Tom Watershed Council.

Since the early 2000s, the Partnership’s focus has been on developing multipartner projects on high quality oak, prairie and wetland properties where farming, ranching and forestry are less financially viable and where conservation opportunities are highest. Rivers to Ridges partners continue to identify new opportunities for collaborative work on both conservation and private working lands, engaging with the farm, ranch and forestry producers in the local community, and finding new ways to connect scenic and wildlife habitat lands for the benefit of the public.

Increasingly, this area will be looked at as a recreational amenity for the region’s citizens, as Rivers to Ridges partners continue to explore how to make public access possible on more of these lands.

Special places, special creatures

Rivers to Ridges partners are not only protecting this important natural area for the community benefits it offers, but also for the truly unique assemblage of creatures that call Coyote Creek and the surrounding landscape home. Numerous wildlife species that are considered rare or sensitive by local, regional and national experts are found in the area.

In fact, several species that are either new to science or are found nowhere else in Oregon are found in the Coyote Creek area. The presence of so many special habitats and the species they support has helped leverage new projects, and the Rivers to Ridges partners have had tremendous success in garnering support for our continued efforts in the area.

Get out there

Fern Ridge Reservoir has been designated an “Important Bird Area” (IBA) by the Portland Audubon Society and is known to host more than 250 bird species over the course of the year. Fern Ridge is a vital stopover along the western flyway, and species such as black tern are known to occur nowhere else in the Willamette Valley.

A lazy, sinuous float along Coyote Creek’s oak-lined channel is a favorite destination of paddlers who want to get off the beaten track. In late spring, bring your binoculars and see lazuli buntings, slender-billed nuthatches and black-headed grosbeaks as you listen to Swainson’s thrushes call to each other from deep in the forest.

There are many ways to enjoy the greater Coyote Creek area. See the McKenzie River Trust website for a schedule of upcoming public tours on their properties as well Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website for recommendations for birdwatching, boat access and waterfowl hunting (in season).

Providing Native Plant Seeds

The R2R Native Plant Materials Program is a decades-long partnership in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon that provides local native seeds and plants for wetland and upland prairie restoration on public and conservation lands … Continue reading Providing Native Plant Seeds

The R2R Native Plant Materials Program is a decades-long partnership in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon that provides local native seeds and plants for wetland and upland prairie restoration on public and conservation lands in the Eugene area. Fifteen years ago, it relied on seed collection from surrounding prairie remnants, but rapidly progressed to a nursery based seed-increase program with careful controls on genetics and grow-out conditions. It has been building on its initial cooperative success and now provides seed of 70 to 85 wetland and upland prairie species annually for restoration on hundreds of wildland acres.

Partnerships

The Bureau of Land Management (including their national Seeds of Success Program), city of Eugene and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are the three entities that have worked cooperatively to fund this program for more than a decade. Like other partnerships, the diverse abilities of its members allows the partners to respond quickly to opportunities and to make more efficient use of available funds, technical skills and staff resources.

Wildlife will follow

seedsThe program focuses on providing the source material to establish healthy native plant communities, knowing that this is also the basis for diverse wildlife habitat. The partners strive to establish species in restorations that provide a range of functions in the prairie ecosystem throughout the year, such as feeding and nesting habitat for grassland birds, host plants and nectar-producing plants for endangered butterflies and pollinators, and nitrogen-fixing capacities to enhance soils.

Sharing a model program

This Native Plant Materials Program was the earliest large plant materials program in Oregon. As such, it has improved the availability of native plant materials in the Willamette Valley for other restoration projects by providing carefully collected local native seed to growers who are later able to sell their excess production to other restoration projects.

The Program’s contracts for native seed production are also a means of consistent reliable income for growers establishing ecologically sound native seed businesses. The partners work cooperatively with other researchers and share information with restoration practitioners, land managers and researchers in the Pacific Northwest. The program also serves as a model for new seed-increase programs, including the recently established Willamette Valley Native Plant Materials Cooperative.