We are tomorrow’s past.Mary Webb, English novelist and poet
It is important to remember that our actions today make a difference tomorrow.
The Kalapuya have lived in the mosaic of wetlands, oak savanna and prairie, the gallery forest and rivers, the linked to the Willamette River, for thousands of years. They depended on the plants that grow in the open prairie, such as camas lily, tarweed, and yampah, as sources of food. As the earliest stewards and managers in our area, they cultivated these plants every summer by setting fires to parts of the Willamette Valley to keep the wet prairie and oak habitats open for these species.
Early Euro-American Settlers
Beginning in the mid 1800’s, European immigrants moved in and reshaped the Willamette River and the managed open habitats to meet their needs. Wetlands were drained and filled for agricultural land, often grazing of livestock. And the use of fires to manage the landscape was suppressed. Continuous prairie habitats and vegetation patterns were fragmented by agricultural lands, farms and the impact of grazing. And new invasive plants and animals were both intentionally and inadvertently introduced. The reduction of wetlands reduced flood water storage, and channelization of streams and the removal of trees, changed stream structure and habitat. Oak savannas disappeared, replaced by Douglas firs and shrubby under-story species. Where the hills were open and productive, and the forests found near rivers, the valley inverted to the form we see today.
As a response to a greater appreciation for the role of wetlands and oak prairie and savaana as critical habitat, the Federal Clean Water Act increased protection America’s threatened wetlands. In 1987, about 1,500 acres of wetlands were identified in west Eugene and over a third of these wetlands were identified on lands proposed for future industrial development. Concerned citizens in the Eugene community implored policy-makers to reconsider the City’s industrial expansion as the cumulative impact of this would whittle away this already rare wetland system.
Then species protected in the Threatened and Endangered Species act (ESA) were found, beginning with the rediscovery of the Fender’s Blue butterfly. Like many butterflies, Fender’s blue exists in tight relationship with a particular host plant. From the moment a Fender’s caterpillar hatches in early summer until it unfurls from its chrysalis as an adult butterfly the following spring, the host plant —almost always Kincaid’s lupine — provides its sole source of food and shelter.
The challenge was to create a solution that would balance environmental protection, recreation, and urban development, while meeting state and federal laws and regulations. All stakeholders, from government agencies, developers, land-owners and community members, became involved in seeking a solution for this complex issue.
Collaboration and cooperation comprise the heart of the West Eugene Wetlands endeavor and an extraordinary partnership, the West Eugene Wetlands Partnership, emerged. This partnership started with the City of Eugene, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Oregon Youth Conservation Corps. Adding to these was the creation of an eudcuation and outreach groups, the Willamette Resources & Educational Network (WREN), in 2001. The diverse array of staff resources from federal, state, and local agencies pooled together to address the challenge of both protecting wetlands and allowing expansion of Eugene through the policy for mitigation banking. This system identified the highest quality of land in Eugene for preservation, enhancement, restoration, or creation (PERC) to offset or compensate for expected adverse impacts to similar nearby wetland ecosystems.
Today, the West Eugene Wetlands partnership has expanded further and merged into the Rivers to Ridges (R2R) partnership, a group of 17 different organizations whose mission is to improve the quality of life for residents in the Willamette Valley by working to protect and enhance the region’s land and water resources, values landscapes for their ecosystem functions, and to provide environmental education and outdoor recreation opportunities. Together, these partners have worked to protect more than 4,000 acres, six square miles, of wet prairie and oak upland prairie/savanna habitat in west Eugene.
Less than one-half of one percent of these original Willamette Valley critical habitats still remains. Our wet prairies are home to hundreds of plants and animals including the federally endangered Fender’s Blue butterfly, Kincaid’s lupine, and the Willamette daisy. Thanks to the continuous conservation efforts of local partners, Bradshaw’s lomatium has been delisted from the endangered species list, which is exactly what the wetland protection program was designed to do.