SAVING THE SAVANNA
- Kara Hansen
- West Linn Tidings - News
The Tidings begins a series today - to run occassionaly throughout the summer - highlighting West Linn's natural gems.
Today: The White Oak Savanna
Three years ago, developers eyed the grassy and lightly treed lot north of Interstate 205 at 10th Street as the future location of a commercial complex containing offices, a gym and a church.
Today, the property faces a far different outlook. It's poised for preservation as one of the few remaining oak savannas in the Willamette Valley.
Last week, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission pledged money to help fund the acquisition of West Linn's White Oak Savanna, a rare remnant of the once widespread ecosystem dominated by grasses and trees.
The state grant would provide one third of the $1 million needed to buy 14 acres of the 20-acre site, an effort spearheaded by community members who forged a partnership with the national Trust for Public Land and the city of West Linn.
The West Linn City Council voted in early February to funnel $333,000 from this year's budget to make the savanna a natural park.
The last remaining piece of the funding puzzle could fall into place in the next month, when Metro councilors consider projects for capital grants.
The proposed park would encompass the property's upper stretch between Tannler Drive and Salamo Road as well as an L-shaped chunk running down Tannler Drive and east from Blankenship Road.
Roberta Schwarz, a resident of the recently renamed Savanna Oaks neighborhood, has been rallying support for the savanna's preservation for years, ever since it entered the public arena of proposed developments. Rain or shine, she's led numerous hikes on paths hacked clear of blackberry brambles by machete- wielding volunteers.
At the end of the first leg of a recent hike, Schwarz paused as she emerged from dense shrubs and approached a pair of oak trees, their gnarled gray limbs twisting into bright-green leafy crowns above a thicket of weeds.
'It's like the whole forest is unfolding,' she said, pointing between the trunks to an entire grove beyond. 'A true white oak savanna. There just aren't any left anymore.'
Oak savannas and prairies once dominated the Willamette Valley, covering an estimated 1 million acres between the Oregon Coast Range and the Cascade Mountains.
American Indians once managed the oak savannas with planned burns, keeping less fire-resistant fir trees and shrubs at bay. But urban development, agricultural use and fire suppression efforts tore out much of the native landscape.
In many areas, the slow-growing oaks have been overtaken by fast-growing conifers, which, along with invasive species like blackberry, compete for resources.
Of the remaining 2 percent of the oak savannas, little is protected. While conservation groups have bought tracts of oak woodlands and grasslands, most of what remains is privately owned.
Acquiring the savanna in West Linn would give the public access to a community of trees, some hundreds of years old, that have ecological, historical and aesthetic value, said Schwarz.
Sure, commuters' cars roar by on the freeway below, right by a grocery store and new commercial development. But Schwarz said she hardly notices that anymore.
'Once you're here for awhile, you forget about those background noises and hone in on the birds and breezes through the grasses,' she said. 'And that's the whole idea: to save a natural place in the middle of a now-urban area.'
She pointed out other 'saved areas' visible from the savanna's hillside. There's a panoramic view of the Willamette Narrows, a reach of river formed by ancient basalt flows and where islands support rare trees and wildflowers, as well as Canemah Bluff across the river in Oregon City. Already protected by Metro, the bluffs are valued for rich diversity of habitats, from conifer forests and wildflower prairies to ash bottomlands and oak woodlands.
Because white oak habitat supports more than 140 species of wildlife, it's considered a conservation priority by state fish and wildlife officials.
The Oregon oak trees, also called Garry oaks, provide nesting and breeding areas for an array of resident and migratory birds, and the West Linn site is already associated with the band-tailed pigeon, considered by the federal government as a species at risk of decline if no one acts to preserve it. In addition, a red-tailed hawk has been spotted nesting in one of the larger oak tree's branches.
Blue and black dragonflies buzz throughout the reedy grasses. Wasps are evident by ping-pong-ball-sized bulbs growing in bunches beneath some trees' leaves. Called oak galls, the green and brown-tinged balls form around colonies of wasp larvae that eat their way out as they mature. Schwarz has a hunch the oak savanna might also provide refuge for the endangered Fender's blue butterfly.
This summer brought tiny new oak trees as seedlings sprouted in areas cleared of invasive Himalayan blackberry brambles. Oregon grape, Indian plum, snowberry, camas and elegant brodiaea lilies - all species common to healthy oak ecosystems - have been spotted by scientists and environmentalists touring the site.
But perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries following a recent tour was the presence of Bernert Creek.
A historical streams map shows the stream that once trickled down the hill and toward the Willamette River. The creek disappeared in the 1970s, when the creation of Tannler Drive filled in the stream channel and diverted the water flow into a pipe about 6 feet underground.
River restoration specialist Andrew Harris believes a 1,000-foot stretch of the creek could once again meander over the hill, cooling and filtering runoff and providing food sources and vegetative shelter for wildlife.
'There is springwater coming down,' Harris said. 'It's not a lot, but it's some.'
Although it's not part of the current plan, he estimates restoring the creek - plugging the underground pipe and creating a new stream channel on the surface - would cost somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000.
'Down the road it's something the community could consider,' said Harris, who lives in West Linn. 'I think it would show the community really values the conservation of this resource.'
Dozens of conservation groups have drafted letters in support of preserving West Linn's oak savanna, including the Nature Conservancy, Willamette Riverkeeper, Oregon Wild, and the Columbia Group of the Sierra Club in Oregon.
The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group, negotiated the property's reduced $1 million price with owner Roy Kim, who knocked $880,000 off what's considered the fair market value.
Community members have also opened their wallets to help buy and restore the savanna, raising $3,000 for the project, according to Schwarz.
Although Kim will retain six acres of the site, Schwarz hopes to raise enough funds to eventually purchase that portion of the site as well. Park advocates have until November to secure enough money to buy the first 14 acres.
The ball is now in the regional government's court.
Mary Rose Navarro, coordinator of Metro's Natural Areas grants program, hopes to forward a list of recommended projects to Metro councilors before they take a break for the final two weeks of August.
Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette said the council relies on recommendations from the program's grant review committee, a process that ensures the funding decisions are based on science rather than politics.
But she hopes to see the white oak savanna protected one way or another.
'I want it preserved,' said Collette during a tour of the property, part of her district. 'It is a spectacular habitat.'
Underwritten by taxpayers, Metro's Natural Areas program can use bond money as a match for other funding sources, providing leverage for conservation efforts too expensive and complex for a single group to finance, Collette said.
She wonders whether proponents of saving the savanna can tap into federal dollars set aside for urban conservation projects.
'If we don't save it, it's gone forever,' she said.