In the Willamette Valley’s heart, a family nurtures a rare swath of native savannah

Plain talk
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Kym Pokorny

The Oregon iris, opening its lavender petals under the mild spring sun, came as a surprise to Frank and Karen Morton.

“We were convinced we had a clear-cut, and we were going to cure it,” says Frank, half of the duo who bought 54 acres outside Philomath in 1988.

What they had instead was an entirely different predicament — native Oregon prairie, a habitat so scarce it’s considered one of the rarest of North American ecosystems.

And there it was, an iris native to the prairie popping out of the dried grass.

Already committed to the idea of land stewardship, the Mortons decided to do what they could to preserve their bit of prairie, especially after a visit from ecologist Ed Alverson of The Nature Conservancy, who proclaimed it the most intact example of a Willamette Valley prairie.

Not many people would recognize the oak-and-grass landscape maintained for thousands of years by aboriginals, who set fires to keep the productive environment intact. The arrival of Euro-American agriculture and development in the early to mid-1800s put a stop to burning, and much of the native prairie was plowed under, leaving the land as we know it today.

But it wasn’t so long ago that the landscape of the Willamette Valley was swept with grasses, dotted with oak trees and, in spring and summer, quilted with wildflowers. Bare-stem lomatium erupted like yellow stars amid the tangle of grasses. The three-petaled fuzziness of cat’s ears begged to be petted. With its long stems and sunny yellow flowers, tarweed made a lie of that unattractive common name. Larkspur, shooting star, Oregon sunshine, pink checkermallow, lupine, aster, fawn lily, columbine, Clarkia, Brodiaea, all lent their colors and textures to the prairie.

Scientists think the prairies evolved naturally in the hot, dry climate that arrived about 10,000 years ago as the last ice age ended. The prairie would have begun changing again 4,000 years later when Mount Mazama erupted, carving Crater Lake and shifting the climate to cool and moist.

Left to its own devices, this oak savannah-type prairie would have eventually progressed into a full-fledged forest. But somewhere along the evolutionary train, humans learned to manage the land with fire. In the Willamette Valley, the Kalapuya and their predecessors were hunter-gatherers rather than farmers. Even so, they knew how to keep natural succession at bay in order to maintain the best food sources.

“Burning was all about food,” says Frank Morton, flecks of light dancing in turquoise eyes. “The natives were completely in tune with the landscape, very ecologically sophisticated.”

They burned to make it easier to collect seeds, bulbs, roots and berries. Sometimes the burning had direct results, such as herding deer or other prey into confined areas to make hunting easier. Or it aided in the collection of grasshoppers and other insects, as this 1850s account describes in “Indians, Fire and the Land,” edited by Robert Boyd of Portland:

“I have often seen them encircle the grasshoppers in a ring of fire by igniting the grass; their wings are scorched by the blaze, and they fall to the ground, when the Indians gather around, collect them and eat them . . . (or) they put (them) into a mortar with acorns or bread root, and pound into a mass which is then kneaded, placed on a board and baked for bread — the legs of the grasshoppers and crickets making a very rough crust.”

Although hunting was the major reason for burning, collecting tarweed was right up there, too. A major food source for the Kalapuya, tarweed plants are covered with a pitchy substance that makes collecting the seeds a messy proposition. The natives set fires that would burn off the resin, slightly parch the seeds but leave the plant standing. The fire destroyed any grasses or other plants that might get in the way of seed harvest.
“As soon as the fire was done,” Frank says, “long lines of women with large baskets that hung to the ground would walk through the field using rackets to smack the seeds into the basket. They’d pound the seed, which was high in protein, and make a cake out of it that they used as a trade good. They took it to the falls at Oregon City.”

Regular burning provided indirect blessings, too. It encouraged the growth of tender grasses and other plants favored by the large animals the native people hunted. By using fire, they could plan not only to have prey around, but also exactly where the prey would be. Regular fires also meant many species of plants — oak, hazelnut and berries among them — would produce bigger harvests the following year. Most of all, fire encouraged fleshy annual plants, which were easier to harvest, easier to eat and provided more nutrients than woody plants.

Harvest, however, is not what motivates the Mortons to maintain their piece of prairie. They own Shoulder to Shoulder Farm and make a living selling organic vegetable seed to companies such as Johnny’s, Territorial, Nichols and Burpee. They did, for a while, sell seed from many of the native plants growing on their property. But, as Frank puts it, “You can’t buy this meadow in a can.”

What he means is that native prairies are not something we can easily create, which makes the less than 1 percent left in the Willamette Valley all the more precious.

“Much less than 1 percent, actually,” corrects Mark V. Wilson, associate professor of botany and plant pathology at Oregon State University.

Wilson’s research on the Willamette prairie shows that mowing can be just as good as fire at maintaining the ecosystem, sometimes better. Timing and height are key. Mowing at the right time cuts off taller invasives before they set seed but allows shorter natives to continue their life cycle. The right height (4 to 6 inches) keeps invasives from getting tall and shading out natives.

“Get rid of the bad stuff, keep the good stuff,” says Wilson, who inspired the Mortons to try his mowing system.

In a gentleman scientist sort of way, Frank Morton likes to know stuff. Once he realized they’d bought a part of Oregon’s ancient history, he couldn’t wait to find out all about it. He lets scientists collect specimens or study his land — as long as they share information. Early on, he read “Indians, Fire and the Land,” taught himself about the plants and wildlife that populate the prairie and got hold of one of Wilson’s many research papers.

“I found out that you can take an area infested with tall oat grass, rose and poison oak, and if you mow it three times a year, you can break up the life cycle of the invasive species without breaking up the life cycle of the native species,” says Frank, who communicates like a teacher in soothing voice, articulating each word until his enthusiasm overflows into a faster rhythm.

So that’s what he and his wife and two kids do now. At first, they cleared by hand and “collected the seed heads of our enemies,” to keep them from reproducing, he says. “Once we got the mower, we were able to cover more ground and be more systematic.”

In the areas where they mow, native species are re-establishing themselves without being reseeded or replanted.

And not just plants are returning. The Morton property also is a haven for wildlife, big and small. But perhaps most exciting is the sighting of three rare Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, an event that brought out experts from the Xerces Society, who left “high as a kite,” Frank says.

While not yet listed as endangered, only 2,000 Euphydryas editha taylori are left in the world, according to Scott Black, executive director of the insect preservation society. “It’s a good bet they’re showing up because he’s doing a good job maintaining the prairie and because it’s a good sheltered spot.”

Sometimes dealing with endangered species on private property can be troublesome. But not with the Mortons. “He immediately asked if it was endangered,” Black says about meeting Frank. “I told him it wasn’t listed but that it was endangered. He said, ‘That’s great. I’ve always wanted an endangered species on my land.’

“We’re always very excited when we find people like Frank,” Black adds. “It’s vitally, vitally important for these remnants to be protected. Not just for the butterflies, but for all the things involved.”

So far, the Mortons have restored seven acres. Slowly but surely, they’re pushing back the edge of the forest, where native species live but don’t thrive, using the trees that come down for firewood. Shade is anathema to prairie species. Even the oaks will eventually succumb, since they can’t germinate in the shade.

On a warm day in May, Frank walks his property, pointing out the endangered Kincaid’s lupine, telling a complicated story about pink checkermallow and the weevil, parasite and hyperparasite that depend on each other to survive. How does he know? He collected some seed, enclosed it in a jar and watched all three insects emerge.

At the end of the morning, he stands atop a knoll he calls the center of diversity. “There are 40 species right here. We’ve cut a lot of brush. It was nearly a monoculture of English hawthorn and wild roses three years ago when we began the battle. Now, though, it comes up like grass, and we can mow it.”

He continues to stand there, looking around as if the wonder of it all is still bright and new. At the smallest nudging, Frank can tick off the insects, birds and wildlife that share the land with them. He gives his wife, Karen, credit for introducing him to the idea of having a farm where the native species are residents, and functional ones at that. “We’re living in a wild community without dominating it. We’re as much a product of the ecosystem as any of these grasses or flowers.”

Getting into a discussion on the merits of preserving our native prairie is almost missing the point. People who want to preserve it don’t talk about why; it’s just too obvious. People who don’t want to won’t be convinced anyway. Wilson can give you all the reasons — economic, ethical, legal, historical — but the best is none of those things.

“The prairies, especially in spring, are a glorious place; wildflowers in bloom, grasses swaying,” Wilson says, his voice changing from academic to personal. “It’s unlike any other ecosystem in the Northwest. It really is uplifting. It’s a shame that the people who live here don’t get to experience that.”

Frank’s reason is simpler yet. “Because it’s something rare. It’s a jewel, and it happens to be right outside my back door.”

Kym Pokorny: 503-221-8205;