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City settles on a middle ground solution for White Oak Savanna brush piles, removes some

This story has been updated from its original version.

PMG FILE PHOTO - West Linn's White Oak Savanna is a unique nature park above I-205 containing grasslands and stands of white oak and other native trees. Though the hope is these brush piles don't spark any fires, they certainly have sparked conversation among the City Council, City staff and members of the community.

The brush piles—which are about 1-2 feet tall and 2-3 feet in diameter and composed of trimmed limbs and branches—were intended to provide habitat for birds and lay beneath trees in the White Oak Savanna.

Recently, the piles' combustible nature, which could fuel a potential fire in the area, has concerned some community members.

Last month, one of those community members, David Baker, took his concerns to the West Linn Parks and Recreation Department, which gave him permission to clear the piles.

"Like all projects I do in the parks, (this one) was coordinated with the parks department and specifically Ken Warner," Baker said. "I had reached out to him and we discussed the situation and how this park is at particular risk for fire this time of year."

Not realizing that the piles were meant to protect birds, he and another volunteer began clearing them away. While working, Baker was approached by two more concerned community members, Ed and Roberta Schwarz. The Schwarzes main concern was the welfare of the birds and other wildlife that may use the piles for habitat.

After seeing Baker's work on the brush piles, the Schwarzes contacted the City Council, some of whom shared their concerns and sought to prevent Baker from removing more brush piles the following weekend.

"Please do not permit the volunteers to remove or destroy any 'bird habitat' aka 'brush piles' this weekend," Council President Teri Cummings wrote to City Manager Eileen Stein in an email Aug. 2.

After conferring with officials from Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue and the parks department, Stein gave Baker and the other volunteers permission to continue removing the piles but told them to be mindful that they may house birds or other wildlife.

"We weren't interested in doing anything that would harm birds or destroy their habitat," Baker said. "We were very careful in even approaching each of the brush piles and delicately removing the branches and making sure that there weren't any signs of anything (animals inside). We didn't find anything."

Baker and the volunteers left the 25 brush piles that they felt posed the least risk for spreading a fire, he said.

After evaluating the area and talking with members of the Savanna Oaks Neighborhood Association and city staff, Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue said, "We were supportive of community efforts to remove ladder fuels that will help avoid fire spread into tree stands and canopies, which is important for the safety of the community and fire suppression crews."

According to a July 30 email from Ed Schwarz to Stein, the brush piles have been in the savanna for years and support several types of birds that nest near the ground.

Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation Ken Warner said brush piles are meant to serve as supplemental wildlife habitat in a backyard setting, not a nature park like White Oak Savanna.

Parks and Rec Director Ken Worcester said the parks department wasn't aware that the piles were meant to be habitats until the Schwarzes brought their concerns to the council. According to Worcester, the piles first appeared after a tree service company donated a work crew to remove certain cottonwood trees in the park but didn't clear the brush and debris away. He also noted that it's common for parks to have piles like this after work is done.

"I don't think those piles were built in the manner that is recommended to create habitat," Worcester said. "There is a specific construction process for doing that which leaves different kinds of entrances and exits and different kinds of drainage and all of those different things taken into consideration and I think these were just more (like) piles."

During public comment at a City Council meeting Aug. 5, Baker asked that the City provide more oversight for volunteer groups to make sure that well-intended volunteer efforts don't turn out to be potential hazards.

(In the original version of this story the Tidings incorrectly credited the City of West Linn with hiring a team of arborists to remove invasive trees in White Oak Savanna. The arborists donated their work to Neighbors for the Liveable West Linn, the nonprofit that developed and fundraised for the park. The original story also misstated the location of the brush piles and used an incorrect photo. The Tidings regrets the errors. )


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