Landowners encourage others to preserve native vegetation

Prior to the 1850s the Willamette Valley was a mix of wetlands, prairie, and oak savannah. The Kalapuya Indians maintained the prairie by periodically burning the grasslands, which kept trees from encroaching and ensured the continued growth of native plants, such as camas, which were vital to their survival.

About 160 years ago American and European settlers first came to the Willamette Valley and began transforming the native vegetation into towns and farms capable of large agricultural production.

Of the hundreds of thousands of acres of prairie and oak savannah that originally flourished in the valley, only a few thousand acres now remain. There has been a 90 to 99 percent decline in these original ecosystems. In fact, the Willamette Valley prairie has been determined to be one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country.

Along with development, invasive plant species such as Scotch broom, English ivy, and Himalayan blackberry have decimated native species.

This staggering loss means that animals and birds that depend on these habitats also have become threatened, including the Oregon state bird, the Western meadowlark.

There have been some efforts to save and restore patches of native vegetation in the valley, usually by government agencies and private environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy. There are three National Wildlife Refuges in the Valley: William L. Finley, Ankeny, and Baskett Slough, which were created in the 1960s and are maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These parcels of land, together forming just over a thousand acres, were set aside in order to preserve native plant species and to enhance biodiversity, while preserving habitat for wildlife.

Marion County similarly has been working to restore Bonesteele Park, consisting of approximately 30 acres, to its original oak savannah habitat.

While these are welcomed efforts, they represent a tiny fraction of the actual habitat needed for species recovery.

But now a quiet revolution is taking place up and down the length of the Willamette Valley and if landowners Mark and Jolly Krautmann have it their way, it won’t be quiet for long. Proprietors of Heritage Seedlings Inc., a wholesale nursery that produces ornamental trees and shrubs for sale to other wholesale nurseries, the Krautmanns own over 1,000 acres in the Salem area, and they have been actively restoring sections of their land for the past five years. They also have been instrumental in encouraging other valley landowners to follow their example. This is critical since most prairie and oak habitats are privately owned.

“We want to demonstrate that it’s not difficult to accomplish extraordinary restoration results in comparatively few years, document the steps and timing, and induce other growers to follow our example,” Mark Krautmann said.

To assist them in this project, the Krautmanns hired a professional botanist, Lynda Boyer, who now manages the restoration of more than 250 acres of riparian, prairie and oak habitat. This work entails removing invasive species such as Scotch broom and blackberry, as well as conifers that may be encroaching on and shading oaks, thinning crowded stands of oak trees, and reintroducing native grasses and wildflowers.

“This work requires patience,” Boyer said. “The first couple of years are maintenance, keeping weeds and invasive species at bay. Some prairie plant species can take 3 to 5 years to set seed and become well established.”

To prepare some of the areas for reintroduction of native plants and seeds, Boyer notes that herbicides are often necessary to reduce the non-native plants that out-compete new native seedlings. In other areas, she uses controlled burns, much as the Kalapuya Indians once did, to open the site for planting as well as for maintenance of the prairie habitat over time.

Initially, one of the major hurdles was finding enough seeds of native plants to make the restoration feasible. Some grass seed was readily available, but seed for many native wildflowers was difficult to find.

“Almost immediately we saw a need for native seed production. We saw a niche that needed to be filled and incorporated that with our own restoration efforts,” Boyer said.
She now grows over a hundred different species of native wildflowers and grasses on 14 acres.

Another aspect of their work that is vitally important to the Krautmanns and Boyer is education and community outreach. They work in partnership with state and federal agencies as well as nonprofit and volunteer groups, such as the Boy Scouts and local schools. Groups of volunteers help with the restoration and in the process learn some valuable lessons about the ecology of the Willamette Valley.

“The primary goal is to plant ‘seeds of inspiration,’” Mark Krautmann said. “Too few kids grow up with any connection to the natural world now. Think about the ramifications: how will they be able to make competent, informed decisions about referendums on the ballot like Measure 37?”
Krautmann and Boyer also have made many presentations to groups such as the Native Plant Society and, most importantly, to landowners interested in doing similar work with their own land.

There are many state and federal programs and resources available to landowners considering restoration, including the recently developed Oregon Conservation Strategy, a non-regulatory, statewide approach to conservation in Oregon. This program provides incentives to landowners by making federal funds available to projects that help conserve species and habitats at risk. Other programs involve grants and tax incentives.

For Krautmann there are sound business reasons for restoration, such as enhancing the value of the land, and he encourages landowners to find ways to make restoration profitable.

“Not only is restoration the right thing to do as stewards of the land, but it is our professional responsibility. Business is calling for this, particularly in controlling infectious disease and ensuring the safety of our food supply,” Krautmann said. “Beyond that, it is an opportunity to act on our beliefs.”