Benton’s Natural Areas: Past, Present, Future

Natural areas are one of the most unique and attractive elements of the Willamette Valley, and Benton County in particular. From Finley National Wildlife Refuge to Avery Park to Mary’s Peak, Corvallis is flanked and filled by nature. 

But where and why did they start? What are they used for? And how might we expect to see these beloved spaces change? 

Origins 

Many of the Benton County natural areas were expanded from the estates of landowners, or purchased by nature lovers or the government. 

The William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, owned by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service , encompasses several buildings of historic settler homesteads. These properties and the buildings on them were purchased by the FWS in the 1960s for the purpose of restoring and protecting the landscape there. 

Other protected natural areas, such as parts of the Jackson-Frazier Wetland, are managed and protected through partnerships between conservation groups and private landowners. In this case, the conservation of the area is managed by Benton County, the Greenbelt Land Trust, and nearby landowners. 

Somewhat different from government or non-profit group ownership, there are several spaces managed by Oregon State University. Notably, the University owns the McDonald and Dunn Research Forests north of Corvallis, which were purchased by the school in the early 20th century from landowners and the U.S. Department of Defense. 

There are many ways land can come under focused protection as a natural area — purchase, donation, and even mutual ownership. But why do these groups and these landowners care? And what does the protection of these areas actually mean for a curious layman or a hiker? 

Current Function 

One of the clearest benefits of Benton County’s natural areas is that they offer a home and shelter for plants, animals, and fungi amidst an increasingly inhospitable, human-centric world. From the threatened Nelson’s checkermallow that grows on Bald Hill to the humble chickadee nesting in Witham Hill’s forest, flora and fauna flourish in protected areas in a way that would be impossible on the edge of a street or parking lot. 

Another benefit of natural areas is the aesthetic appeal. Corvallis is well populated with nature lovers, happy to have an accessible trail or bike path through the wetlands or the woods. Part of the Greenbelt Land Trust’s Mission Statement is to protect “lands of natural beauty, which provide a connection to the natural world.” 

On an institutional level, natural areas are often used for innovation, research, and education being done on a community level, in the school district, and by the university – after all, Oregon State is a research university. 

Accessible flora and fauna allow locals and visitors alike to have access to the wonders of our regional environment and the wildlife native to the Willamette Valley. And the maintenance of these spaces makes the appreciation and the preservation of area legacies possible. 

There are also many ways a place can be made beautiful, ways flora and fauna can be welcomed back into an area. The maintenance plans and “rewilding” of areas is a complex issue which takes knowledge and understanding of the environment, and a strong idea of the goal of an environment. 

Many government organizations owning public natural land, like a city, county or state, have specialized advising boards or the management is led by a group of experts. Often, the goals of these organizations are to protect existing habitat and restore habitat that has been destroyed. For example, Finley lies on old farmland which has been altered to resemble a more natural and native wetland. This is done by planting native and beneficial species, removing invasive or harmful species, and controlling human traffic in order to benefit the species that live there. 

In this way, the benefit of human enjoyment of the environment is carefully balanced with the restoration and protection of species, such as birds that prefer to remain undisturbed during their nesting season. For the goal of protecting and growing the population of species threatened by human development as well as the goal of aesthetic pleasure in our communities, these organizations walk the line. 

The Future 

Wild spaces all over the globe are threatened, not only by the development and expansion of civilization, but by global climate change. This is clear from increasingly severe wildfires. Birds are nesting farther north for longer times because of increasing temperatures, flowers are blooming at unusual times and droughts are more devastating than before.  

Regionally and globally many people are taking note, and looking for ways to help stave off catastrophe. The protection of natural areas is one step towards that goal. 

According to the National Wildlife Refuge System of the FWS, the management required to protect species amidst climate change must be wholly different from management of the past. They say that conservation will require “rethinking business-as-usual wildlife management practices and making hard choices.”  

What this means practically is that our natural areas, in many cases, will not survive if they only stay the same or try to go “back to normal.”  

Despite these dire and unpredictable changes, there is hope. These natural areas continue to be the site of research and learning, and many dedicated people are working to continue to protect their vulnerable inhabitants. 

The Greenbelt Land Trust is one organization which continues to work with local nature lovers, landowners, and benefactors to acquire more space to protect and restore. And while in some ways our cities continue to be developed and to expand, wild spaces are being named and protected. 

There are many ways to give back to these places. Donations can be made to many local protection organizations; volunteers are often needed and recruited to plant trees or shrubs and to remove invasive species; people with yards or window sills can plant native flowers for pollinators and the benefit of the neighborhood; and anyone can take a walk on these much-needed trails. Perhaps it will lead to the discovery of something new and exciting. 

If you would like to donate to the Greenbelt Land Trust, please visit their website. 

By Ardea C. Eichner