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Camas bluff near Pittsburg Road explodes in flowers, but conservationists are concerned about bluff's future on private property

PMG PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - This camas meadow near Pittsburg Road and Highway 30 offers a vibrant display of native plants. Some residents are concerned about the future of the meadow which is on private property owned by Weyerhauser Company.The deep bluish-purple of camas flowers, gently dotted with hints of pink from rosy plectritus and yellow from mimulus, blanket a meadow just north of Pittsburg Road in St. Helens.

The springtime bloom is wondrous, but some Columbia County residents are concerned about the future of the wildflower meadow — one of the last wild camas meadows in the state, they say.

The property where the flowers bloom is privately owned by Weyerhauser Co., which operates as a timber real estate investment trust and has previously expressed no interest in preserving the meadow, which has some residents concerned.

While some of the property Weyerhauser owns lies within the St. Helens' urban growth boundary and is zoned for residential use, a larger portion of the land is outside the city limits, in the county, and some of the land is leased to Knife River, which runs Watters Quarry. The quarry has an active mining permit filed with the state's Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

Any expansion of mining or housing development could threaten the wildflowers. A member of an informal wildflower conservation group, who asked not to be named due to possible conflicts with Weyerhauser, said members of the group want to draw awareness to the meadow's special properties and its ecological importance.

"Its value as one of the last camas meadows in the state is invaluable," the group member said.

In late April, members of the conservation group held an informal luncheon to discuss updates on what could be done to preserve the meadow, according to their social media page and a number of public conversations that followed in the comments.

Right now, with the flowers in full bloom, their colorful display attracts many to the area to see the flowers.

"They're spectacular, and everyone notices them this time of year when they're in bloom," the group member added.

This is not the first time activists and stewards of the meadow have advocated for protection of the area and worried about its future, however.

In 2013, Lona Pierce, of Warren, said the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council joined efforts to conserve the land, but the property owners were not willing to participate in conservation efforts, according to earlier Spotlight reporting. At the time, it was also not possible to designate the property as a protected wetland because of a lack of low-oxygen hyrdric soil, Dan Cary, a wetland scientist, St. Helens resident and Department of State Lands employee, explained.

In 2015, Caroline Skinner, a steward of the St. Helens Nob Hill Nature Park who is also familiar with the camas bluff, also asked Weyerhauser to consider donating a portion of the property near Watters Quarry, but a spokesperson at the time said the company hadn't received any formal requests about donating the land and did not appear receptive to the proposal, earlier Spotlight reporting indicates.

The bluff area is an oak and Douglas fir woodland, where rainwater seeps into soil before it hits underlying basalt and runs downhill, which allows the meadows to bloom. Outdoor enthusiasts describe the meadow as a unique plant community where Oregon white oak and camas flowers grow, along with numerous other native plants.

St. Helens city planner Jacob Graichen said no permits have been issued to Weyerhauser for the roughly 50-acre portion of the property within the St. Helens UGB as of Tuesday, April 30.

The northern portion of Weyerhauser's properties lies within the Columbia County boundary. Staff at the county's Land Development Services dismissed Spotlight inquires about whether any permits had been pulled, instead requiring a public records request to be filed.

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