Saving old Oregon

Restoring ancient habitat in the Willamette Valley.
Restoring ancient habitat in the Willamette Valley.

A recent article in The Oregonian mentioned that "at town hall meetings across the state, Oregonians are saying they're worried that growth is changing the state and threatening their way of life." The cause to preserve some of the old Oregon is taking many forms beyond the urban planning that everyone's heard about in Portland. One interesting preservation effort in the Willamette Valley is focused on restoring the original landscape.

When I was at the Discovery Center in The Dalles, Ore., recently, I saw a painting by artist Stev H. Ominski called "Age's End" portraying the tidal wave of one of the prehistoric Missoula Floods as it coursed down the lower Columbia River Gorge: Imagine a wall of water 400 feet high traveling at 90 miles per hour. Needless to say, it altered the landscape. It carried everything from 80-ton boulders to much of Eastern Washington's topsoil to the Willamette Valley, leaving behind the Channeled Scablands. The Willamette benefitted, however, and is today famous for its crops and vineyards. And before the white settlers flooded in, Native Americans used controlled burns to manage the valley's landscape for hunting and gathering.

Now there's growing interest in preserving some of the valley's earlier landscape, not pre-flood but pre-European agriculture, restoring native grasses, flowers, saving old oak trees, and trying to bring back endangered or departed species, such as Oregon's state bird, the Western meadowlark, which has largely vacated lands west of the Cascades because of farming and development. The Oregonian recently profiled the "treasure" of Steiwer Hill, a recovering oak savannah being restored by Mark and Jolly Krautmann, who run a company called Heritage Seedlings in Salem. According to the paper, "less than 5 percent of the original oak savannah and prairie remain. The lost habitat imperils 175 native species in the valley." The Nature Conservancy puts the lost percentage at 2 percent. The valley used to be predominantly savannah and oak prairie.

The Nature Conservancy announced a 272-acre preserve this year, the Yamhill Oaks Preserve, but most of the land that needs protection or restoration is in private hands. It's expensive — the Krautmanns have spent tens of thousands of dollars plowing and pulling up invasive species to be able to begin the process of bringing back native plants. Part of their land is home to 350- and 400-year old native oak trees. Habitat restoration is partly a business and partly a labor of love, but it is tough and expensive to do, even with some state and grant support. Nevertheless, it's noble and wonderful work the Krautmanns and others are doing, to work to restore a piece of old Oregon in the face of the onslaught of the new.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.