The yellow sign nailed to the old oak tree bears witness to the vintage pattern of Willamette Valley ecosystems. The surveyor's corner notes from 1850 record a sample of points across the landscape that describe the vegetation. The witness tree in the photo inset was likely 12" in diameter 160 years ago, one of the scattered oaks observed when measuring township and section corners.
Researchers reconstructed the Willamette Valley ecosystem from the regular grid of surveyor records, and concluded that prairies and oak savannas dominated the landscape in 1850. A Pacific Northwest Serengeti, one million acres of prairie and 500,000 acres of oak savanna supported the habitat for elk, grizzly, wolves, cougar, and two species of deer. Human settlement over a 15 decade period altered the mosaic of grasslands and the patches of oak trees.
Settlement converted the Valley to a managed landscape that altered the grasslands into a fragmented pattern, with edges delineated by ownership and land use. The change in the physical structure of the pattern, as well as the composition of the vegetation, also resulted from the absence of an historic, frequent disturbance. The post-settlement absence of fire in the ecosystem enabled the encroachment of Douglas Fir, competing for the space held by the oak savanna. The modified landscape placed communities of plants and animals on the edge of existence.
The 21st century mosaic of working lands is protected by public policy. Urban growth boundaries manage development, reserving rural land uses that contribute to the Oregon economy. One would think land use conversion would not be a conservation threat. However, over the past four decades, vintners discovered that the nooks and crannies of the Willamette Valley offer ideal growing conditions for grapes. With land values higher than development, agriculture and forest alternatives compete for the limited growing space. The missing policy link for all working lands categories is habitat. The urban and rural reserves were effective in managing urban land conversion, but did not consider the value of wildlife habitat in the Willamette Valley.
The Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, and private landowners hosted a tour of the Willamette Valley. The Land Trust Alliance coordinated the field trip as part of their 2009 Rally: The National Land Conservation Conference, held in Portland. The tour stops are samples of Willamette Valley land use, and include the Zena Forest, the Smith Family's easement, and a vintner committed to sustainable management. Each tour stop narrative includes a Photo Atlas; below are hints on the use of the interactive Atlas:
The Photo Atlas is best viewed by clicking a link below the lower left map corner that reads: View ....In Larger Map.
Enlarge the individual thumbnail photos by clicking on each (or their link located in the left margin of the enlarged map).
The map scrolls, and scale controls allow zooming in or out (changing scale changes visible pattern).
When finished with the Photo Atlas for a tour site, click the browser Back Arrow to return to the article.
Sara Deumling had a vision for sustainable management of the Zena Forest. Nestled in the Eola Hills, between the Coastal and Cascade ranges, Sara managed the Zena Forests since 1996 for the owner, a German Count, The Count decided to sell the property with a restriction - the new owner must retain certification of the forest by the Forest Stewardship Council's standards. Potential buyers backed away from that condition, with the exception of one - Sara.
Through a complex series of transactions, including selling a conservation easement on Ms. Deumling's own 130 acre adjacent forest, the forest manager became the managing owner. Easement appraisal values were substantial, The primary alternative land use was conversion to vineyards. Average vineyard purchase prices in the region were $20,000 per acre for suitable parcels compared to $1,000-$1,200 per acre forest land values. Turnover of land by the California Public Employees Pension Fund created a track record of high market prices for the alternative use. If only 50 acres of the parcel were suitable for grape production, the price difference would approach $10 million. Bonneville Power Authority mitigation funds financed the easement acquisition. The working forest conservation easement purchased the difference between vineyard and forest land values and extinguished future market pressure for conversion. The current and future owners will retain the 1,100 acres in working forest, thanks indirectly to the grapes of worth.
Recognizing the departure of forest composition in the Eola Hills with historical conditions, restoration investments by Sara will regain hardwood stands of oak and maple. The forest plan commits to oak stands covering at least 40% of the 1,100 acres. The owner's business strategy complements the commitment to managing the entire ecosystem. With a sawmill on site, the mother and son business partners directly market their FSC certified products to green builders in Portland without a wholesaler intermediary. The constraint today is the limited market for oak products. The commitment to oak savanna restoration also requires a commitment to creating oak markets close to home. The Zena Forest experiment is designed to demonstrate the economic success of managing with nature.
The Smith Family easement conserves farm and forest on 150 acres adjacent to the Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established in the 1960's for migratory species. Three species on the Threatened and Endangered List are unique to the Willamette Valley. The easement property, the Refuge, and surrounding candidate easement sites will contribute to the protection of the trio and many other species found in oak savanna, oak woodland and prairie ecosystems.
Only 5% of the Valley is in public or land trust ownership. Conservation easements on private lands contribute to biodiversity, especially considering the projected populations pressures for Salem and the surrounding area. The conservation strategy combines restoration with easements. Absence of fire, even in the non-agricultural land, degrades the oak savanna. In the remaining oak stands, the tree density is often higher than estimated from historical records. Restoration prescriptions include removing oak to reduce stand density. Periodic, low intensity burns of grasses also burn Douglas fir seedlings that take over the oak savanna . Without that periodic disturbance, the fir trees continue their march into the oak savanna and oak woodlands, degrading the quality of the plant communities.
The Smith property is only eight miles outside of Salem Initially proposed to the County Commissioners as a Park, the Commissioners endorsed a working lands easement that would commit the land to production. Bonneville Power Authority Mitigation funds financed the easement acquisition. Other private lands in the neighborhood are candidates for conservation easements, and will further extend the protected landscape surrounding the Wildlife Refuge.
In the Photo Atlas below, contrast the pattern of vegetation in the Refuge with the surrounding valley by altering the scale (zoom out).
Susan Sokol and her husband Bill Blosser were vineyard pioneers in the Willamette Valley. The young couple converted wheat fields and orchards to plant grapes almost four decades ago. They started with 18 acres, expanding to 100. Wine consumers across the country recognize the Sokol-Blosser label on fine Pinot Noir. Other vintners over the decades also noticed the success, and moved into the neighborhood. Not part of the couple's original business plan, the high quality wine produced from their vineyard increased land values for vintage sites.
Susan and Bill adopt sustainable practices, as defined by the The Natural Step Framework. Their own land is managed to "exercise caution in all kinds of modification of nature". The Sokol Blosser grapes are certified as organically grown, limiting chemical use on the vineyard. The property includes a stream with a riparian buffer of trees that minimize soil erosion and provide shade that moderates stream temperatures. In addition, the business applies the Natural Step Principles to the supply chain. The wine barrel cellar (Susan's picture was taken in the cellar) was constructed with a living roof, shown in the Photo Atlas.
During the tour, Susan described the French word terroir - loosely translated in English to mean the sense of place. In the context of growing grapes, the word captures the site geography of soil, climate, and physical terrain. Integrating the trinity of conditions creates the vintage qualities of the grapes grown. The Sokol-Blosser reputation for quality wines builds on the 1970's selection of the 18 acre site. Following the couple's lead, other vintners chose their sites within the 1.5 million acre Willamette Valley, searching for terroir.
Public land use policy defines goals for the aggregate of the individual site decisions imprinted on the landscape. At the broader landscape scale, the cents for space compete with terroir - the sense of place. Oregon land use policy manages growth in order to reserve working farms, vineyards, and forests - a commendable planning objective. The landowners and land trusts hosting the tour recognize that the urban growth boundary policy overlooked an important component of place: the space reserved for wildlife habitat. Human settlement reduced the pattern of oak savanna and woodlands to isolated patches in a mosaic of working lands The winemaker searches for a vintage site. Conservation seeks to restore segments of a vintage landscape, a landscape that represents the high quality of a previous time. The motivation is not simply nostalgia, but a recognition that the complex mix of past plant and animal communities support ecosystem functions that sustain us all.
Conservation easements purchased with mitigation funds leveled the playing field between alternative land uses. for the Zena Forest and the Smith Family. Combined with a working lands market strategy to produce products from sustainably managed land, the private owners on the tour work to restore portions of a vintage landscape... while there is still time.