The Willamette Valley landscape has changed drastically over the last 150 years. Historically, oak prairies and woodlands were a major component of the Willamette Valley ecosystem. Traditionally, the Calapooya 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 a natural fertilizer.
When settlers came, they modified the land to yield more productive farm ground. As more people came to settle in the fertile Willamette Valley, more oaks were removed for farm land and homesteads. Settlers also suppressed natural wildfires and traditional prairie burning that would regularly occur on the landscape. Suppression of the natural and traditional burning practices has resulted in denser successional forest stands dominated by other native trees such as Douglas fir, which shade out Oregon white oaks and the associated prairie plants.
Mowing to Suppress Weeds and Simulate Fire Disturbance on Oak Restoration Site
As a result of fire suppression and land conversion, the estimates are that oak woodlands have been reduced by 80% and only about 1 % native prairie habitat remains in its native range in the Pacific Northwest according to the Oregon Conservation Strategy. This drastic reduction in habitat in such a short period of time has had negative effects on the native flora and fauna. For many of these native species, the remaining habitat is too small or fragmented to sustain viable populations. As a result, many native species dependent on these habitats are considered critically imperiled or rare throughout their range.
What can Private Landowners Do?
The majority of land in the Willamette Valley is owned privately so working with private landowners is critical to preserving and protecting remnant prairie and oak habitat. Landowners interested in what they can do to enhance and protect oak habitat on their properties can plan ahead and manage certain areas for wildlife focused goals. Planting areas with natives will provide valuable food and habitat which can attract wildlife and birds to your property. Also managing your property to control weeds will provide additional opportunity for more desirable plant species to establish and provide benefits to wildlife. Landowners can also focus on protecting and enhancing corridors and edge habitat on their properties that provide opportunities for wildlife dispersal.
Endangered Fender's Blue Butterfly on Kincaid's Lupine
There are also opportunities for private landowners to work with local, state, and federal partners to identify high value habitat and develop a plan to enhance and protect these areas. The District provides free technical assistance to private landowners and can connect landowners with additional opportunities or resources for assistance. 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. There are also state grants available for restoration and improving watershed health. These grants are competitive and available for small scale as well as large scale restoration projects. At a federal level, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has a regional cost share pool for their Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) that focuses on forest health and fire prevention. This is also a competitive program, but it can provide cost share for comprehensive forest management plans and actions that reduce fuel loads, support native habitat and improve overall forest health. Another Federal program that provides technical assistance to landowners is the US Fish and Wildlife Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. If a project or property fits the program area’s recovery objectives, landowners are able to sign a ten year commitment where they are eligible for technical assistance and possible financial assistance.
Additional Resources on Wildlife and Habitat:
– Wildlife of Oregon’s Forests is an interactive online field guide to Oregon’s forest wildlife
ODFW Compass – Allows you to explore crucial habitat layers for terrestrial and aquatic species and habitats.
Oregon Wildlife Explorer – Hub of information on the Oregon Conservation Strategy
Oregon Flora Project – a comprehensive resource of the native plants of Oregon. Includes an interactive online map, plant identification photo gallery and rare plant guide