BROWNSVILLE — On a stifling August day when the mercury soared well past the century mark, Greenbelt Land Trust Executive Director Michael Pope picked his way through knee-high clumps of native grass turned brown and crispy in the heat.
A few months from now, though, it will be a different story.
“This is really awesome in the spring — all purple with camas,” Pope said. “Probably from October to May, depending on the rainfall, it stays pretty wet out here.”
“Here” is Greenbelt’s latest acquisition, a 202-acre property a few miles outside of Brownsville in southern Linn County near the headwaters of Courtney Creek, an important tributary of the Calapooia River.
The Corvallis-based nonprofit closed on the property Thursday, purchasing the land from a family that prefers to remain anonymous. Like the rest of the 3,000-plus acres owned or managed by Greenbelt, it will remain on the tax rolls. But instead of being used for agriculture, it will be used for conservation.
Tucked into a cove at the northern tip of the Coburg Hills, the Courtney Creek property sits on the fringe of the Willamette Valley agricultural belt. And while about a third of it is currently used for farming and grazing, it’s never been drained like most of the surrounding fields, allowing some of the native plant and animal communities to hold on.
That’s what makes this property valuable for conservation.
“One of the most significant features out there is extensive wet prairie and wet ash forests,” said Claire Fiegener, Greenbelt’s conservation director. “It supports a wide range of flowering prairie plant species, including one of the largest remaining populations of Bradshaw’s lomatium.”
Also known as Bradshaw’s desert parsley, Bradshaw’s lomatium was once widespread throughout the Willamette Valley, thriving in open, seasonally flooded prairies along the river and its many tributaries. But much of its habitat has been lost to land development and changes in flooding patterns. Today the plant is found only in isolated pockets of Linn, Benton, Marion and Lane counties, and it has been listed by the federal government as endangered since 1988.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Courtney Creek property may be home to more than 30,000 of the imperiled plants. Granting permanent conservation status to this population, Fiegener said, will enable the agency to count it toward recovery goals for the species, possibly helping to pave the way for eventual delisting.
Growing only about a foot and a half high, Bradshaw’s lomatium blooms in April and May, producing clusters of tiny yellow blossoms.
“Bradshaw’s is probably the least spectacular flower you’ve ever seen,” Pope acknowledged. “But it doesn’t matter whether it’s a beautiful, showy flower or a modest flower. It’s the fact that it’s rare and disappearing and could be extirpated that makes it important.”
It’s also an integral part of a larger wet prairie ecosystem that has been sharply reduced and badly fragmented in the Willamette Valley. Other native plants and animals found at Courtney Creek include camas, tufted hairgrass, a variety of sedges and rushes, Oregon ash, songbirds such as the willow flycatcher, western meadowlark and orange-crowned warbler and even large mammals — there are signs of elk on the property, and it may be used by bears and cougars as well.
Greenbelt plans to phase out farming on the site, which currently has about 50 acres planted to meadowfoam, as well as grazing on another 20 or so acres. Most of the wet ash forest will likely be retained, while the wet prairie acreage will be restored and expanded. There is also an opportunity for restoring upland prairie on higher, drier ground, and the conifer forest on the property’s southern end provides a transitional link to the wooded Coburg Hills.
The purchase was funded with $544,000 from the Bonneville Power Administration through the Willamette Wildlife Mitigation Program, which channels money to the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife for conservation projects like Courtney Creek as part of a settlement to make up for habitat loss caused by the BPA’s network of 13 hydropower and flood control dams in the Willamette River basin.
The program also provided an additional $340,000 for long-term stewardship of the property. Some of that money will go to cover ancillary costs related to the purchase, but most of it will be invested, with the financial returns going to maintain the land over the long haul. Greenbelt will seek grant funding to help cover restoration costs.
The Calapooia Watershed Council played a key role in Greenbelt’s acquisition of the property, Fiegener said, helping to identify the site’s crucial conservation importance and providing an introduction to the owners.
“We built a relationship with them and they were interested in selling the property, so it all worked out,” she said.
Outside the core
Because of the sensitivity of the habitat it protects, the Courtney Creek property will not be open to the public like some of Greenbelt’s other holdings, although the nonprofit does plan to host tours and educational programs on the site. Pope is particularly excited about getting Brownsville residents out to see the conservation work being done on the property.
“There’s a great interest for us in getting to know communities outside our core area,” he said.
In addition to its intrinsic conservation values, Greenbelt was attracted to Courtney Creek because it’s a sizable piece of property that fits into the nonprofit’s long-term conservation goals, Fiegener said. It also extends the group’s reach into a new corner of its four-county service area and adjoins a region of mixed public and private ownership that offers significant opportunities to protect sensitive habitat for a wide range of species.
“We see this as a real starting place and foothold in this Coburg Hills area to build off of,” Fiegener said. “There hasn’t been a lot of permanent conservation work in that region.”
Pope sees the Courtney Creek property as a potential anchor site in the area, a haven for threatened plants and animals that could potentially be expanded if other willing sellers can be found.
Moreover, he believes it can help “connect the dots” with other protected sites around the Willamette Valley, helping to knit back together the frayed web of habitat that once supported a thriving ecosystem in what is now the most heavily populated part of the state.
“It’s all a matter of scale,” Pope said. “For the Willamette Valley, 20 or 30 acres is pretty small. But 200 acres is pretty good-sized, and you add onto that and you start to build something. There’s other work going on that really compounds those values.”