At the end of Cardwell Hill Road, there is a gate. The sun is shining through cracks in the tall canopies of Douglas-firs, and more strongly through the mostly leafless, twisting branches of Oregon white oaks in this mixed woodland setting. The understory consists of golden grasses with dead heads of wildflowers mixed in. In more shady spots, large sword ferns and the gold leaves just barely hanging on to native hazelnut trees add more color to the scene. Hikers pass by me, bundled in down coats, wool hats, and fleece gloves, and donning sunglasses, often accompanied by happy looking dogs with coats of their own. A pair of tandem bikers whiz by up the gradual hill behind the gate, their wardrobe sleeker, and as they ride their breath is visible in the cold air. I admire these surroundings until I see an SUV coming down the road. Soon enough, the gate is being opened, and Ed Easterling, the founder of Crestmont Land Trust, beckons me to join him for a tour of the property.
Foundations of a Land Trust
Hailing from our country’s southeastern corner, Easterling made his way to our neck of the woods in 2008. He was interested in escaping the heat of East Texas at a point in his life when he had more flexibility in his career in finances. Further, he wanted to indulge his love of forests by producing timber concurrently while enhancing a habitat for native plants and wildlife. Easterling’s search for timber property in a temperate climate ultimately lead him to the forested and mild northwest. Narrowing his search even more, he eventually found land just outside of Corvallis for sale by Weyerhauser.
Easterling quickly got started in timber production, and eventually began a cattle operation as well, always keeping in mind habitat enhancement goals. These efforts pointed him towards meeting many knowledgeable people in the world of conservation, who further steered him to programs that could help accelerate his aims. One of these was the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, whose mission is “to efficiently achieve voluntary habitat restoration on private lands, through financial and technical assistance, for the benefit of Federal Trust Species.”
While working with this and other organizations, Easterling eventually decided to close off his timber and cattle properties to the public, and wanted a way to give back to the local community in terms of access, while continuing on the theme of improving native habitats. So, in 2012, he founded the Crestmont Land Trust as a 501(c) non-profit that would manage 172 acres between west Corvallis and Wren, bordering the pre-existing Fitton Green Natural Area to the east and the Marys River to the west, and would be “open to the community, managed for habitat, perpetually sustaining, so there’d be some element of production, but that it would have charitable research, education, and recreation initiatives in addition to habitat conservation,” Easterling explains as we drive down the gravel access road.
Restoration Work Thus Far
From the get-go, Easterling brought on Mike Stipp to serve as the Property Manager for Crestmont, who he already knew from previous work. He then connected with the Northwest Youth Corps to garner additional hands for restoration and access projects. At first, this involved having crews of mostly high school and college students out on the property for eight-week stints over the summers. Later on, instead of having a whole crew, he worked with the Corps to get individual members that would serve rotations anywhere between three and 12 months at a time. Eventually, this all led Easterling to bring Amanda Schoonover on as a permanent Habitat and Trail Steward in 2015, after she served the limit of rotations allowed through the Corps. Several years later, another employee was added to create the current crew of three, Aidan Vanhoff. Together, these hardworking individuals are responsible for much of the remarkable changes that have occurred on this land.
In 2015, 45 acres of south facing, forested slopes were thinned to restore the oak savannah habitat. After excess trees were cut, slash piles were burned to remove fragments that were not salvageable. To create a “finished” look, machinery was brought in to mulch over the charred remains of these piles and to grind down the stumps of cut trees. The ground was sprayed so that invasive species would not take over the newly opened understory, and in 2016, ten native forb species were seeded to create ground cover. This had to be done completely by hand in some areas, as the slopes were too steep for machinery that ordinarily would be used. To make sure that every inch was covered, crew members squirted mustard on the ground behind them to keep track of where they had already seeded, and wore GPS units to confirm afterwards that the whole area was completed.
The impact of such attention to detail is clear once one knows what to look for. As Easterling and I reach the boundary between Fitton Green Natural Area and Crestmont, the difference in canopy and understory structure along either side of the fence line is remarkable. Why the fence? I ask. On the savanna’s slope just above us, Easterling points out a lone black cow, contently grazing. As we keep going, a couple more become visible. Indeed, whole herds of cattle are kept on an intense rotating schedule throughout the acreage here in order to keep invasive plants from coming back.
Easterling recognizes that historically, oak savannas were maintained by the regular burning practices of the Kalapuya. However eventually, their removal from the land and the burgeoning of the settler population gave way to conditions today that make such fire management trickier to conduct. Crestmont’s current neighbors – besides the Natural Area – consist mostly of private timber production lands. Due to this, prescribed burns at the site pose too great of a risk if they somehow were to get out of control.
Another option to maintain a savanna like this could be to mow it or hay it, but that too is difficult at this site due to the same steep slopes that called for the laborious task of seeding by hand. So, Easterling, with his prior experience in cattle, and with the understanding of the property’s previous use as a dairy farm in the early 1900s, decided that bringing cattle back to graze would be the best method of maintenance. The bovines are happy to munch on any non-native species that may regrow, and keep the native grasses at a shorter length which allows for a more diverse array of species to thrive. In addition, the cattle seem to avoid eating important native species such as Kincaid’s lupine, which is the host plant for the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly. Further, their grazing creates ideal conditions for the Oregon vesper sparrow, a ground nester. “That’s just one example where wildlife benefits from an activity we do that is also better for production,” Easterling says.
In 2018, 60 additional acres were thinned following a similar process as in 2015. That brings the total of restored oak habitat to 105 acres, or just over 60 percent of the total property. This same year, a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board allowed for improvements to a tributary creek to the Marys River to be made: a cylindrical, perched culvert that was blocking resident fish passage was removed and replaced with a culvert with a half cylinder shape that allows for fish to swim up and down a natural streambed below it.
Value of Oak Restoration
The meticulous approach the Crestmont Land Trust is taking to oak restoration may seem over-the-top to those unfamiliar with the extent of decline these environments are up against. It is estimated that in 1840, during Euro-American settlement in the Willamette Valley, prairies and savanna habitats covered nearly 50 percent of this region’s land. Today, that number is down to less than two percent, with the suspension of indigenous fire management and expansion of agriculture and urban areas largely to blame. What little remains is classified as in a degraded condition, earning the ecosystem the title of one of the most endangered in the country.
The deep history of these environments and the human intervention required to sustain them cannot be emphasized enough. Likely established during the relatively warm and dry conditions of the early Holocene, prairies and oak savannas continued to thrive even as the climate cooled and dampened through the Little Ice Age, between 1600 and 1850, due to the burning practices of Native Americans that prevented the encroachment of forest vegetation that otherwise would be encouraged in this climate.
Prairies and oak savannas, when intact, provide a range of ecosystem services. Most obvious perhaps is that they make a home for species exclusively adapted to them, such as Kincaid’s lupine, Fender’s blue butterfly, and Oregon vesper sparrows found in restored areas at Crestmont. Less visibly, these ecosystems sequester carbon and filter water via their root networks, and are considered buffers to communities against fires and floods, which are projected to increase with climate change.
While climate change presents challenges for many ecotypes, it is possible that longer periods of drought may create circumstances more suitable for prairie and oak savannas, so long as other necessary conditions such as soil nutrient content and drainage are preserved.
A Network of Trails, a Network of Understanding
With the 2015 thinning complete and the 2018 projects under wrap at Crestmont, much attention has been given to the opening of the three-mile trail network on the property at the start of December, and especially to the approximately 0.3-mile-long Amy’s Trail, named after the recently deceased, local conservationist Amy Schoener, which connects Crestmont to the existing trails within Fitton Green, and to Bald Hill beyond. Built where previous logging roads once were and where connection trails were useful for habitat enhancement projects, traveling within this new network allows one to see for themselves the impact both restoration and production can have on the land.
Indeed, “production and habitat enhancement are not contradictory, they are not in conflict, they can actually work very well together to support each other,” says Easterling.
At the end of the grand tour, Easterling takes me up one last road on the far northwest end of the property. We pass by what looks like a more typical Douglas-fir dominant timber forest, with the occasional Willamette ponderosa pine mixed in as we head up a hill. At the top, we stop and walk to a flat landing where the road ends. Just over the tops of the trees below us, we can look out across the valley for a view of Marys Peak. In the future, Easterling says he’d like to develop more trails on this side of the property, perhaps doubling the current mileage available, and to build an accessible gazebo in the spot we stand, so that anyone can come here to appreciate the ecological and human communities this land historically has, currently does, and will continue to support.
By Ari Blatt
CORRECTION: The following names were previously misspelled and have since been corrected: Mike Stipp and Aidan Vanhoff.