Camas Prairie Restoration Project
When European settlers arrived in Oregon around 1850, wetland prairies covered one third of the Willamette Valley, an estimated 400,000 acres. Less than one percent, about 1000 acres of historical wetland prairie exists today because of extensive ranching and agriculture. Wetland prairies occur on alluvial soils deposited by floods, typically separated from streams and rivers. The underlying clay soils prevent drainage of winter rains resulting in shallowly flooded prairies until summer. This unique habitat has a high diversity of plants some of which are endemic to the Willamette Valley. Much of these prairies were burned annually by Native Americans to maintain an open landscape that improved conditions for hunting and harvesting edible plant species.
In 1994, the Willamette National Forest acquired a 14-acre parcel of fallowed ranchland that hardly resembled a native wetland prairie. The meadow was full of invasive weeds such as European blackberry, Scotch broom, and Queen Anne’s-lace, and Oregon ash trees were colonizing it. Alice Smith, Botanist at the Sweet Home Ranger District, surveyed the parcel and found camas lilies and other indicator species such as meadow checkermallow, hyacinth brodiaea, suggesting this was a remnant wet prairie in dire need of restoration. Archeological surveys discovered considerable lithic scatter of obsidian and heat cracked rocks suggesting that Native Americans used the site to harvest and prepare camas bulbs, which were an important food source. These discoveries led to the re-naming of the site, Camas Prairie, and the beginning of an interagency, intergovernmental collaboration aimed at restoring the degraded wetland, promoting camas production and other native wet meadow species, and restoring the traditional cultural landscape.
The Camas Prairie Restoration Project began with the re-introduction of fire. Traditionally, camas prairies were burned frequently at low intensity in late summer when the meadows were dry and the seeds released into the soil, eliminating competing vegetation, and encouraging the spread of camas. Tribal fire crews cut down encroaching ash trees and later burned the site in the fall of 1998. The following summer, Alice Smith headed up the collection of tens of thousands of camas seeds with the help of Lane Community College students, tribal members, and volunteers in order to reseed after prescribed fires. Some of the seed was planted at a private nursery to be grown out and replanted at Camas Prairie.
Camas Prairie has been burned every two years and seeds have been collected yearly for the past decade with remarkable success. Since the restoration project began, camas plants have almost tripled in number and invasive plants have decreased by half. Other native species have been reintroduced to the site such as native tufted hairgrass, meadow barley, western red cedar trees, and hazelnut. Restoration efforts continue with the help of the Siletz Indian Nation, Grand Ronde Indian Nation, BLM, Oregon State University, Lane Community College, Youth Conservation Corps, Linn County Sheriffs’ Correction Crews and the Sweet Home Ranger District.
For More Information
Alice Smith, District Botanist
Sweet Home Ranger District