BUENA VISTA -- Gail Oberst said she's grown fond of the sights and sounds contained within the Luckiamute State Natural Area (LSNA) during hikes there.
Her favorite spot, for example, is a forest bordering the Willamette River that features some of the largest oak and cottonwood trees she's ever seen, she said.
But Oberst, a contractor with the Luckiamute Watershed Council (LWC), said she believes there's still plenty for her to discover in the 926-acre park.
After all, it was only a few years ago that she learned of a re-establishing population of threatened Western Pond turtles, she noted.
"I had driven by there millions of times and thought there was just nothing there," she said.
Because there's little in the way of signs or advertisements for the Luckiamute State Natural Area, you probably haven't noticed the park near the southeasternmost part of Polk County off Buena Vista Road.
Unless you're a birdwatcher, a paddler or a knowledgeable local.
And that means missing out on a recreation area set amidst a near-confluence of the Willamette, Santiam and Luckiamute rivers, a network of wetlands and upland prairies, and one of the best remaining examples of floodplain forest in the valley.
The visibility of the site, along with its health and potential for low-impact use, are some of the items that the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and LWC plan to address with an enhancement project that's starting this year.
"We need to underline the fact that this is a public park and that it needs some work to make it better," said Nicole Duplaix, LWC director.
The state has contracted with the watershed council to conduct restoration activities on more than a third of the LSNA, including weed and invasive vegetation management, groundwater studies and fish and wildlife assessments.
Funding for the initiative, which will occur in phases during the next seven years, will come from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Meyer Memorial Trust, Duplaix said.
OPRD, meanwhile, will add signage to its existing trail heads, install viewing platforms in key spots, create a paddler's access along the east bank of the Luckiamute River, and other items.
A new trail head and gravel parking lot is also slated at the park's south end, said Ryan Sparks, OPRD park manager.
"They aren't major developments," said Sparks. "We're not trying to turn this into a park with big picnicking areas ... the focus is still on the natural environment."
LSNA consists of two tracts of land: a 615-acre parcel in Polk County that includes the original Luckiamute Landing, and another 311 acres in Benton County.
The landing was one of those properties added to the state's park system when lawmakers introduced the Willamette River Greenway legislation during the 1970s.
Sections of the site have been and still are leased out to farmers. Until three property acquisitions in the 1990s and early 2000s doubled LSNA's size, however, there hadn't been much work, maintenance or publicity there, Sparks said.
"They were really just undeveloped pieces of land open to hunting and fishing access," he said.
In 2005, the state began work on a master plan that will guide the future of the park. That process concluded in April 2009.
A demand for more recreation opportunities, such as hiking, nature observation and hunting, is one reason driving the park enhancements, Sparks said.
Another is LSNA's biological diversity, which is comparable to refuges in Ankeny and Baskett Slough. Trails in the south tract will be routed to avoid some ponds to protect at-risk species.
LNSA "is considered one of the places to do birding in the valley," Duplaix said. "And the floodplain forest, that's the crown jewel of the LSNA ... there's virtually none of that left in the Willamette Valley."
Duplaix said some of the first physical work on the park will take place in the north tract, such as thinning of understory vegetation, weed control and converting agricultural parcels to native floodplain vegetation.
Before then, however, there will be significant public outreach to surrounding landowners and stakeholders on what the LSNA restoration involves.
"It is a slow process, but doing the steps consecutively rather than all at once makes for a better outcome," Duplaix said.
Colin Files of Salem and his 3-year old son, Forest, visited the north tract on a hot day last week, to hike a trail through the bottomland to a primitive, yet popular, boat-in camp along the Willamette.
"We ate lunch on the river and waded through it," Files said. "I used to come here once a week when I lived in Monmouth, but this is the first time with my son.
"I like it here," he continued. "It's peaceful out here and there's usually not too many crowds."
The Luckiamute State Natural Area is located at the southeastern edge of Polk County, bordered by Buena Vista Road and the Willamette River.
To reach the north tract trail head coming from Independence, turn left onto Crocker Road and keep left until you reach a parking area.
The existing south tract trail -- which will eventually close in lieu of one to its north -- is located on the east side of Buena Vista Road just north of the junction with Northwest Springhill Drive.
You can view a copy of OPRD's master plan for LSNA online at www.oregon.gov/OPRD/PLANS/index.shtml.