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Project to help wildlife habitat

A 472-acre site south of Highway 18 in northern Polk County will soon belong to The Nature Conservancy, which plans to restore the land for various wildlife habitat.

Credit: BONNEVILLE POWER ADMINISTRATION/for the Itemizer-Observer
A 472-acre site south of Highway 18 in northern Polk County will soon belong to The Nature Conservancy, which plans to restore the land for various wildlife habitat.

POLK COUNTY — The Oregon Wildlife Center off Steel Bridge Road in northern Polk County near Willamina will soon belong to The Nature Conservancy.

The Bonneville Power Administration is funding the $1.5 million purchase of the 472 acres as part of its efforts to protect, restore and enhance habitat for wildlife, according to BPA project manager Dorie Welch in a letter to affected landowners.

Although the sale is not complete, members of the conservancy have been out on the property surveying what already lives and grows there.

“So far they have found six or seven somewhat rare (plant) species that they were surprised to find already living there,” said Mitch Maxson, director of marketing for The Nature Conservancy. “It added to what we already thought would be a great ecological location.”

The sale should be final in late July, and will belong to The Nature Conservancy, which will manage the property.

The first project phase will be active restoration work done by contractors, Maxson said.

“The intent is to open it to the public for some sort of use at some point in the future,” said Dan Bell, Willamette Basin director for The Nature Conservancy.

Public access would be through guided tours or with specific permission for the foreseeable future, according to the grant documents filled out by The Nature Conservancy.

The project will provide an opportunity to engage volunteers, communities and organized groups in onsite work parties, the documents state.

“That specific location is still in the midst of coming into our possession,” Maxson said. “Next spring, we would like to have some people out there to help with all sorts of things, helping to create trails for more access, all sorts of things like that.”

The land most recently was used for the care of rare African wildlife, Welch said.

“That use is in the process of winding down, and the focus going forward will be on native Willamette Valley wildlife habitats,” Welch said.

The land is in the Willamette River Basin, which covers more than 11,500 square miles and stretches from its headwaters in the Cascade Mountains to its confluence with the Columbia River, Welch said.

The property — comprised of about half well-maintained pasture and half oak woodland, with some remnant upland prairie — has not been open to the public under its current ownership.

The Nature Conservancy will conserve and restore regionally imperiled prairie and Oregon white oak savanna and open oak woodland systems, according to the grant documents. The prairie habitat is dominated by non-native pasture grasses.

The area is in an ideal location to help a nearby population of Fender’s blue butterfly, an endangered species. The butterfly is known to live about three miles from the property.

The area also will help grassland bird populations, such as the western meadowlark and streaked horned lark.

The Noble Oaks property is the ancestral home of the Yam Hill (Yamhill) band of Kalapuyas, an antecedent band of Grand Ronde, said Michael Yarnosh, ceded lands program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, in a letter of support for the project.

The land is part of a larger area ceded by the tribe to the United States through the 1855 Willamette Valley Treaty, he said.

The 472-acre property will form a connection between two adjacent conservation easements, creating a larger block of about 700 acres of conserved land in the area, Yarnosh said.

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