Horseshoe Lake acquisition helps tie together restoration projects
in Willamette floodplain
This time of year, Horseshoe Lake is a slackwater slough, choked with lillypads and crusted with algae blooms. But come the winter rains, the water level will rise and the currents will flow as the cutoff oxbow reconnects with the Willamette River.
Those seasonal connections with the river make Horseshoe Lake a crucial refuge for fish, frogs, turtles and other water-dependent wildlife. And its proximity to similar pockets of native habitat along the Willamette make it a vital link in a growing chain of protected properties with the potential for restoring lost floodplain function in the stretch between Corvallis and Albany.
Last week, the Greenbelt Land Trust closed a deal with three landowners to preserve 175 acres in and around the lake. The addition brings the total amount of state and private land dedicated to conservation in the Albany-Corvallis reach to 1,600 acres.
“The conservation footprint you have in that area is pretty significant,” said Michael Pope, the land trust’s executive director. “That’s one of the reasons we were interested in that area is the compounding of conservation values.”
Located just off Riverside Drive about 3 miles east of Albany, Horseshoe Lake is right across the river from the Tripp Greenway and butts up against Riverside Landing, another parcel of Willamette Greenway property.
Just upstream, toward Corvallis, are two more pieces of state-owned land, Halfmoon Landing and Truax Island. Downstream, toward Albany, are Bowers Rock State Park and a Greenbelt-managed conservation easement on the Little Willamette Slough.
Not much active restoration work has been done on the state lands so far, but momentum is building in that direction. On the Little Willamette property, the gradual conversion from agriculture back to native forest has already begun, and a similar approach is in the works for Horseshoe Lake.
While the vast majority of land in the Willamette Valley has already been developed for agricultural, industrial or urban use, Pope said, having a cluster of protected parcels on this stretch of the river carries intriguing possibilities for restoration.
“I think there are some opportunities to start planning for some larger conservation goals here,” he said.
Ties to the land
The Horseshoe Lake property was — and, for the most part, still is — owned by three related families, the Waggles, the Stellmachers and the Carnegies, whose roots in the farming community along Riverside Drive run deep.
Under the deal signed last week, the Greenbelt Land Trust bought 63 acres from the Stellmachers and acquired permanent conservation easements on 10 acres of Carnegie land and 102 acres of Waggle property.
The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board provided $286,000 toward the land costs, and the Bonneville Power Administration kicked in $252,000, with $201,000 of that set aside for stewardship and long-term maintenance. The Meyer Memorial Trust contributed $264,000 for surveying, legal work and other “soft” costs associated with securing the Horsehoe Lake property and another parcel called Harkens Lake upriver from Corvallis.
All of the land will remain on the tax rolls at the current farm deferral rate.
Judy Waggle, whose family settled in the area in the late 1800s, said her grandfather bought the Horseshoe Lake parcel in the 1950s. Although she grew up in town, she has fond memories of family picnics under the trees and catching fish in the lake.
When her neighbor Ed Rust, who set up a conservation easement on his Little Willamette property with the Greenbelt in 2009, approached her about making similar arrangements for Horseshoe Lake, it just felt right.
“My mom and dad, years ago, gave land to the greenway, so I knew that was important to them,” Waggle said.
“My dad always said, ‘If you borrow something, return it in better shape than it was in when you borrowed it.’ And if you apply that to the land, I can’t think of a better way to give back.”
Much of the Horseshoe Lake property is already in a relatively wild state, with cottonwood, ash and maple trees growing tall along the fringes of the long, tightly bowed slough.
Judy’s husband, Art Waggle, said the property plays host to a wide variety of wildlife, from waterfowl to eagles, osprey, beavers, otters, deer, coyotes, foxes and bobcats. Sensitive aquatic species that call the lake home include chinook salmon, Oregon chub, Pacific lamprey, red-legged frogs and Western pond turtles.
Part of the property, a teardrop-shaped field cradled between the arms of the oxbow lake, is currently planted to ryegrass. Farming will be phased out over the next few years as the field is replanted with native species — oak savanna on the high end and riparian forest toward the river.
Like most of the agricultural land that has been deeded over for conservation in the Willamette floodplain, this parcel is difficult to farm. High water cuts it off from the road during the winter, making it hard to get equipment in and out, and different soil types pose a challenge to irrigation in the summer.
“You’d drown that end and dry out over here,” Art Waggle said, “so it’s hard to farm that way.”
Aside from pulling out invasives and revegetating the grass seed field with native trees, Pope said, Greenbelt isn’t planning any drastic changes. The idea is just to enhance the habitat, preserve the lake’s connections with the river and allow the property to function in concert with other protected lands in the Willlamette floodplain.
“We’re not interested in breaching any dikes or breaching any revetments,” Pope said.
“We understand the connections with the farming community here. I think there is a certain amount of trust that has to be built with this community.”
A refuge for fish
Taken by themselves, properties like Horseshoe Lake may seem too small to have much impact on a landscape that has been as heavily modified as the Willamette Valley. But even isolated pockets of habitat can play a vital role in sustaining wild species under pressure from human activity.
Oxbow lakes and remnant side channels, for instance, provide year-round habitat for frogs, turtles, salamanders and other aquatic creatures, according to Stan Gregory, an Oregon State University river ecologist who has worked extensively in the Willamette floodplain. They also serve as slackwater resting places for fish during high winter flows and protected rearing areas for migratory species such as salmon and steelhead during the low-flow days of summer.
“In April, we found juvenile chinook salmon using the slough on Ed Rust’s property,” Gregory said. “If they have adequate temperatures and oxygen, they can survive and then get back in the river when the area gets inundated again.”
One reason these areas are so attractive to fish is that they are often substantially cooler during the summer than the main channel. That’s because of cold water that seeps into the hyporheic zone, a semiporous layer of rock and soil beneath the floodplain, during the winter and then slowly flows back into the sloughs and side channels during the warmer months.
“We put some radios in cutthroat along the river and found that about two-thirds of them moved into these sloughs and alcoves when the weather got really hot, and then moved back into the river when it cooled down,” Gregory said.
Connecting the dots
That’s what makes properties like Horseshoe Lake valuable elements in the overall conservation strategy for the Willamette River floodplain.
Stringing together isolated parcels in clusters like the Albany-Corvallis reach and managing them to enhance wildlife habitat and natural floodplain function is the vision behind the Willamette Special Investment Partnership, a public-private initiative launched in 2008 by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Meyer Memorial Trust.
As more land along the river is set aside for conservation, the real work of restoration can begin.
“We’re in the very early stages,” said Ken Bierly, the senior partnership coordinator for OWEB.
“We’re just starting into the revegetation stage. ... We’re also evaluating ways that the floodplain can be altered to create a more fish-friendly floodplain.”
The Meyer Memorial Trust recently funded a 27-acre restoration project at Halfmoon Bend, the Willamette Greenway property just upstream of Horseshoe Lake, Bierly said, and OWEB is planning an inventory of noxious weeds for removal on public and private lands between Corvallis and Albany.
Also under discussion are restoration projects on other protected lands along the upper Willamette, from Green Island near Eugene to Luckiamute Landing near Independence.
It’s a patchwork strategy, the Greenbelt’s Pope said, but one that has the potential to provide real benefits for the Willamette River and all the wild creatures that call it home.
“You’re never going to have enough money to purchase or protect all of that land, and you’re never going to have enough money to restore it all,” Pope said.
“But if you look at key points along the river as steppingstones to conservation, this reach of the river is one of those steppingstones. I think it’s kind of the best we can hope for in terms of conservation.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-758-9529.