500,000 tiny trees and shrubs cover fields that rest between two rivers: the Coast Fork and the Middle Fork of the Willamette. They line the banks of the rivers. They dot embankments surrounding strangely shaped ponds.
But, just five or ten years ago, in the plants’ place were chunks of concrete, asphalt and tires covered in blackberry vines.
The site was a gravel mine owned by Wildish, a local construction company, for around 70 years.
That was until The Nature Conservancy, an international environmental organization, bought it for around $23 million in 2010, named it the Willamette Confluence Preserve, and started restoring the area. The property is a 1270-acre wetland habitat between the Coast and Middle Forks of the Willamette River next to their confluence, around five miles from the University of Oregon.
People in Eugene and Springfield needed the gravel that came from the land to build roads and buildings, but the 20 pits that were excavated damaged the precious ecosystem.
“It’s a piece of property that had just been beaten to death with heavy equipment, and yet there was so much promise too,” said TNC volunteer John Helmer.
Many of the pits, which were filled with water to turn into ponds, border the rivers. Others were once part of the rivers. Wildish built embankments to separate them from the main currents, which constricted the rivers, making them flow faster. This hurt fish that get exhausted by fast-moving water. They had previously used the areas occupied by gravel pits as places to rest and feed.
According to Jason Nuckols, a program director for TNC’s Willamette Confluence Preserve project, gravel pits like these line rivers all over the world but have been historically ignored by conservation groups who didn’t believed they could be restored.
But TNC knew that the gravel pits could become habitats for many precious species, including endangered Chinook salmon. Juvenile Chinook use these areas to rest and bulk up before venturing into the ocean, where size often determines life and death.
“We wanted to prove this concept that gravel pits are an opportunity area,” Nuckols said.
They’ve been proving their point so far.
In the last eight years, TNC spent $7 million to remove 800 cubic yards of concrete and asphalt, 350 cubic yards of hazardous waste and 500 tires. It moved 300,000 cubic yards of dirt, restoring 630 acres of floodplain and opening natural connections between ponds and rivers. It planted half a million live plants and 2,300 pounds of seed to revive native vegetation.
All this work has paid off. TNC found juvenile Chinook in every reconnected pond. And, water naturally flowed into them from the rivers during last week’s flood. This may have lowered the peak of the flood and reduced damage because the water had more places to safely spread.
Volunteer Helmer, who leads the tours, said that hearing the sounds of the river can be revolutionary for people who can’t normally get into nature.
“That’s one of those things — you do it and you’re just hooked, because the people who come get so much out of it,” he said.
Looking forward, TNC will transfer the property to another organization. It is still deciding who to entrust the land to, but they will almost definitely allow more public access.
In the future, the tiny trees TNC planted will grow into a forest, and people will be able to enjoy a beautiful wetland seemingly untouched by humans or machines.