FIRE RESTORED TO OREGON LANDSCAPE RESURRECTS
PRAIRIES AND PROTECTS COMMUNITIES
If there is one thing everyone knows about western Oregon, it’s the rain. Surprising, then, to consider
that fire helped shaped the Willamette Valley landscape for possibly the past 10,000 years. Periodic
burning by native people created wet prairies and oak savannas that supported abundant game
animals and edible plants. Fire improved seed production, reduced brush undergrowth and created
excellent deer habitat.
Today, more than 99 percent of the Willamette Valley’s one million acres of native prairies are gone.
Over 150 years of fire suppression, concurrent with the spread of agriculture and urban development,
has led to the conversion of prairie and oak savanna into oak woodland and Douglas-fir forest. Much
of the original prairie that has not given way to development has been enroached upon by exotic
introduced species such as Scotch broom, pear, and Himalayan black berry, as well as by native
shrubs and trees such as poison oak, black hawthorn, and Oregon white oak seedlings.
Major remnants of the remaining fragments of Oregon’s original landscape are located on two
Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuges: Baskett Slough and William L. Finley NWR. These remnants
provide important habitat for federally listed insect and plant species, including Fender’s blue
butterfly, Kincaid’s lupine, Bradshaw’s desert parsley, Willamette daisy, and Nelson’s checkermallow.
Refuge managers have spent considerable effort over the past few years to mimic the cleansing
effects of fire. Crews have thinned the oak and ash trees and cut the brush with big mowers with
special rubber treads to minimize soil compaction and disturbance. This treatment increases sunlight,
benefiting prairie plants and butterflies alike.
In 2003 the Fender’s blue butterfly reached its highest population level in 10 years, a 64
percent increase over the 2002 count. “We’re hoping in the next years we can see the
local butterfly population go through the roof,” said Jock Beall, biologist for the refuge
complex. “Some of the upswing is undoubtedly due to favorable weather conditions”,
Beall states, “but the refuge’s aggressive habitat restoration work has also been a key
factor in this improvement.”
The thinning and prescribed fires also reduce hazard fuels to prevent wildfires and lower the risk to
nearby rural residential homes, agricultural lands, and private woodlands. Interagency cooperation
and support during the burning operations comes from the U.S. Forest Services, the Bureau of Land
Management, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the Monroe Rural Fire District
Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Fire managers here burned about 455-acres to both reduce hazardous fuels and to enhance critical habitat for several threatened and endangered species, it was a product of strong local collaboration by FWS staff and partners from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry, and the Monroe Rural Fire Department.
Bell Fountain WUI project on William L. Finley Refuge near Corvallis, OR.