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Marie Vicksta - Preserving rare habitats

Submitted photoIn fall 2013, Kathy Pendergrass, left, and Amy Bartow of the National Resources Conservation Service prepare to plant seeds of a native upland prairie grass, Roemer’s fescue, for an oak restoration project at a vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills.
Submitted photo
In fall 2013, Kathy Pendergrass, left, and Amy Bartow of the National Resources Conservation Service prepare to plant seeds of a native upland prairie grass, Roemer’s fescue, for an oak restoration project at a vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills.
Guest writer Marie Vicksta has been a conservation planner with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District since 2010. She works with landowners to improve water quality, reduce erosion and enhance wildlife habitat. She enjoys hiking, kayaking and gardening.
Guest writer Marie Vicksta has been a conservation planner with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District since 2010. She works with landowners to improve water quality, reduce erosion and enhance wildlife habitat. She enjoys hiking, kayaking and gardening.

Historically, oak prairies and woodlands were major components of the Willamette Valley ecosystem. Traditionally, the Kalapuya Indians used fire to maintain and manage the land to produce camas, tarweed and other food staples. Fire was also a natural event that reduced fuel loads, stimulated seed production and germination, and provided natural fertilizer.

When settlers arrived, they modified the land for farming. As more people settled in the fertile Willamette Valley, they removed oaks for farmland and homesteads.

Settlers also suppressed natural wildfires and prevented the traditional prairie burning. Suppression of natural and traditional burning practices has given us more-dense successional forest stands. As a result, the valley is dominated by other native trees such as Douglas fir, which shade out Oregon white oaks and the associated prairie plants.

The landscape has changed drastically over the past 150 years.

Due to fire suppression and land conversion, oak woodlands have been reduced by an estimated 80 percent. Only about 1 percent of native prairie habitat remains in the Pacific Northwest’s native range, according to the Oregon Conservation Strategy.

This drastic reduction in habitat within such a short period of time has harmed native flora and fauna. For many native species, the remaining habitat is too small or fragmented to sustain viable populations. Consequently, many native species dependent on these habitats are considered critically imperiled or rare throughout their range.

Many of the remaining intact oak woodlands and upland prairies in the Willamette Valley are on hilly, traditionally unproductive ground. However, in the past 20 years, much of this ground has been sought for its excellent grape-growing soils. This land is often converted to vineyards.

The trend of vineyard establishment is expected to continue. The population of the Willamette Valley is expected to double from 2 million to 4 million by 2050. This doubling will likely influence the rate of vineyard establishment. According to the USDA statistics service, vineyard growth between 1987 and 2010 averaged 242 acres a year. But in the recent past, between the years 2005 and 2008, the rate was nearly twice as high, 438 acres a year.

Most land in the Willamette Valley is owned privately, so working with private landowners, particularly vineyard owners, is critical to protecting the remnant prairie and oak habitat.

If landowners are interested in how they might enhance and protect oaks on their properties, managing certain areas for wildlife is an option. Planting areas with native species provides food and habitat, which may attract wildlife and birds to the property. Also, controlling weeds allows more desirable plant species to become established, which benefits wildlife. Keeping corridors and field edges free of weeds protects and enhances the land as it provides opportunities for wildlife to move about.

Private landowners can work with local, state and federal partners to identify high-value habitat and develop a plan to enhance and protect these areas. Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) offer free technical assistance and can connect landowners with additional resources. Most districts have staff with extensive knowledge and experience working with oak prairie and woodland restoration projects. They are great resources for landowners interested in learning more about what to expect and how to plan a project.

In addition, state money is available for restoration and improving watershed health. The grants are competitive and available for small as well as large-scale projects. The federal Natural Resource Conservation Service focuses on reducing fuel loads, supporting native habitat and improving overall forest health.  It can help pay for forest management plans through its Environmental Quality Incentive Program.

Another federal program providing technical assistance to landowners is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. If a project fits local recovery objectives, landowners may sign a 10-year commitment to protect restoration areas in exchange for technical and financial assistance.

If we are to protect this rare, valuable habitat, conservation organizations at the local, state and federal levels need to work with private landowners, assign priorities and carry out the oak prairie and woodland restoration projects on the properties.

If you are interested in learning more or requesting a free site visit, please contact the Yamhill County SWCD at 503-472-6403.

 

Guest writer Marie Vicksta has been a conservation planner with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District since 2010. She works with landowners to improve water quality, reduce erosion and enhance wildlife habitat. She enjoys hiking, kayaking and gardening.

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