A secluded area of woods and prairie southeast of Brownsville is targeted for a habitat restoration project by the Bureau of Land Management, which could include cutting down conifers in a commercial timber sale to protect its endangered butterfly population.
From now until July 13, BLM is seeking the public’s input on the proposed project, and on Friday hosted a public meeting at Brownsville City Hall, where local residents could discuss the plan and raise any concerns or questions.
The 224-acre area, known as the Oak Basin Prairies, was first designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) in 2006, a year after the federally endangered Fender’s blue butterfly was discovered in the area – a species that exclusively lives in prairie meadows.
The butterfly is only found in the Willamette Valley, and the Oak Basin Prairies are one of three known areas with them east of Interstate 5; There are 13 known locations total in Oregon. The Oak Basin Prairies’ population of the butterfly dropped to 12 in 2017, but has since risen to between 30 and 40, according to BLM’s presentation.
The BLM land considered for restoration is a hilly area south of Courtney Creek Country Road, and is bordered to the west by two private properties owned by tree farmers.
Over the years, conifer trees have encroached on the prairie meadows – reducing them by at least 20% since 1875. BLM now is stepping in with the goal of protecting both the butterflies and its host plant, Kincaid’s lupine, which is federally threatened.
The area of environmental concern consists of 180 acres of forest and 44 acres of meadow, but at this point BLM is unsure what percentage of those trees could be removed in the project in the timber sale.
“There’s been a lot of effort going into gathering data in these parcels to see what is really, truly appropriate for sustained timber yields in the long term,” said BLM botanist Jessica Celis on Friday. “We’re working to get those details sorted out soon, but we don’t have them quite yet.”
Cutting down the trees would in turn expand meadows for butterflies and reduce competition for oak trees.
Other steps taken to protect the plants and butterflies could include cutting down non-native and invasive plants, or planting native nectar and host plants to improve the habitat for Fender’s blue butterfly.
A unique aspect of the project is that some areas targeted for restoration are designated as “harvest land base,” meaning BLM uses it for timber production, while in other sections tree-cutting can only be for environmental protection purposes.
In some sections, those designations overlap, and Celis said BLM is trying to balance the two goals of restoring and enhancing the natural aspects, while also sustaining timber yield.
At the Friday meeting, one of the nearby property owners, tree farmer Jim Merzenich, said he has been in support of BLM’s restoration efforts and that he has worked with them since the first Fender’s blue butterfly was found on his property in 2005.
Merzenich, who owns Oak Basin Tree Farm, said he intends to do some prescribed burning to help restore butterfly habitat, and that in the past he has obtained grants from BLM for smaller projects such as creating tree-less corridors allowing butterflies to expand into more areas.
“We’re very environmentally sensitive to what we’re doing; right now what we’re going to be doing is thinning,” Merzenich told The Register-Guard. “We’ll have to continue to control the noxious weeds that tend to compete with the lupine.”
Around 10 people attended the meeting, as did a handful of BLM employees who are working on this project.
BLM biologist Grace Hopkins said the area does not overlap with known habitat for the northern spotted owl or any other threatened species, but added they would continue to conduct surveys that they require.
“Our main concern is the butterfly for this site and trying to expand the meadow habitat and make things better for that species,” said Hopkins.Comments on the project need to be sent in by 4 pm July 13 and can be sent by e- mail to [email protected], or by mail addressed to David Butler at the Springfield Interagency Office, Northwest Oregon District, 3106 Pierce Parkway, Suite E, Springfield, Oregon 97477; or by fax to 541-683-6981, with “Oak Basin Prairies ACEC” in the subject line for faxed and emailed comments.