What do river otters have to do with wildfire protection? Over the past year, the Parks and Open Space Ecological Services Team (EST) undertook an innovative collaboration to make our natural areas more resilient to wildfire while also improving habitat and benefiting our river friends.
The South Ridgeline Fuels Reduction Project is a partnership between Parks and Open Space and the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Community Assistance Program. Our Ridgeline Park System more than doubled in size over the last decade to nearly 2200 acres, thanks to the 2006 Parks Bond Measure, grants, and donations. But many of these new parklands are heavily overgrown with trees and invasive shrubs – vegetation that is undesirable near residences and businesses in the wildland-urban interface.
BLM provides funding support to local governments and agencies for prevention, education, and outreach regarding wildland fire with a goal of decreasing wildland fire threats and losses to communities and natural resources by addressing needs before a fire starts. Now in our 4th year of collaboration, this BLM funding has facilitated the removal of dense trees and shrubs from nearly 400 acres of natural area in the Ridgeline Park System and Skinner Butte.
As part of this ongoing project, EST staff are always looking for ways to achieve restoration goals and improve wildlife habitat on parklands – and 2018 provided an opportunity to not only benefit City natural areas, but also contribute to a monumental project by our neighbors, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC has been working for years to restore riparian side channel habitat at the Willamette Confluence Preserve and connect to the Middle Fork of the Willamette River. Their project was in the final phases, and they were in search of as many trees as they could find to add coarse woody debris to areas that had been disconnected from the river for decades. Well, we had trees!
Through careful planning, good communication, and coordinated project implementation, Parks and Open Space teamed up with BLM and TNC to achieve our fuels reduction, wildlife habitat, and oak restoration goals through one common project. About 240 trees, mostly Douglas-fir and incense cedar, were removed from a remnant oak savanna at Suzanne Arlie Park, freeing up legacy Oregon white oaks that had been heavily encroached upon, and helping to restore this rare Willamette Valley habitat. TNC picked up the logs and transported them the short distance to the Willamette Confluence Preserve, placing them in the water where they were quickly discovered by the river otters. They will also provide habitat for juvenile salmon and basking sites for Western pond turtles. And, removing this large volume of material has reduced fuel loads near Lane Community College, residences, and regional electric transmission lines.
Additional work at Suzanne Arlie Park in 2018 included removal of invasive shrubs, feral fruit trees, and encroaching Douglas-fir and Oregon ash. At Skinner Butte, 6 acres were thinned by hand in the heart of downtown. Both projects lessen fuel loads and improve firefighters’ ability to safely respond to wildfires, while helping to restore regionally rare wet prairie, upland prairie, and oak woodland, as well as opening up new areas for siting future recreational trails.