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Section of Herbert Farm in Corvallis undergoes controlled burn
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Section of Herbert Farm in Corvallis undergoes controlled burn

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A controlled burn at the Herbert Farm and Natural Area in Corvallis on Thursday was part of habitat restoration efforts aimed at improving the site.

The Corvallis Fire Department, Corvallis Parks and Recreation and the Corvallis-based Institute for Applied Ecology teamed up to conduct the burn, which targeted just 4 acres of the 221-acre property. Parks & Rec and the institute have been doing restoration work at Herbert Farm for a decade.

The city of Corvallis acquired the patch of land south of town through an open space bond measure in 2000. The area has been minimally developed and access was limited in the past. Herbert Farm includes the confluence of the Marys River and Muddy Creek, and it features riparian, upland prairie, wet prairie, oak savanna and oak woodlands.

The natural area has been praised for its biological diversity, and it’s hoped that someday outdoor education programs and camps will get to use it. It’s possible that a trail system could connect Herbert Farm with the neighboring Caldwell Natural Area and across the Marys River to the Marys River Natural Area and boardwalk.

“At the moment it’s sort of a hidden gem that people are slowly discovering,” Peter Moore said.

Moore, a restoration ecologist with the Institute for Applied Ecology, said the burn would remove built-up thatch and help create a good seed bed for native plant establishment, adding that it’s helpful to bring back a fire regime to which those plants have adapted to over thousands of years. The fire should leave a clean slate to develop.

Prior to European settlers, Native Americans used fire to manage the landscape, keeping it more open for hunting and gathering. The settlers took the opposite approach, preferring to stop fires, which leads to fuel buildups and shrub encroachment. Invasive species also crept in over time, crowding native plants such as Kincaid’s lupine (important for butterflies) and Nelson’s checkermallow.

Moore said the area greatly improved in the past 10 years. When the work began, there was mostly ryegrass, but now there’s a wide variety of species and habitats. The birds, bees, butterflies and other insects go wild for the flowering plants. In springtime, the swales retain water and attract wading birds and waterfowl. It’s a fine place for wildlife enthusiasts to explore nature.

“We’re trying to encourage the Streaked Horn Lark, which is a threatened grassland bird species,” Moore said. “It’s got a population over at the airport … there have been a few nests for the last few years.”

Restoration work at the site has largely been funded by the Oregon Department of Fish Wildlife’s Willamette Wildlife Mitigation Program, which in turn is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. The funding is scheduled to last until 2025. Grants from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Corvallis Parks & Rec have also helped fund the project.

Moore estimated that more than $1 million has been spent on the work to-date. The land is divided into units that are focused on in a phased rotation, changing which section is worked every few years. The goal is to restore the land to a point where it only needs to be maintained.

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For the firefighters involved, the controlled burn is an invaluable training opportunity. Shawn Morgan, Corvallis Fire Training Division Chief, said experience is a function of frequency, determined by how often skill sets are used. The burn let crews work on new skills or practice what they know, but perhaps most important was the collaboration between multiple fire agencies.

“That’s key because when we have a large-scale event it’s going to take all of the regional partners to come together to bring that under control,” Morgan said.

Due to natural and cultural sensitivity, the firefighters practiced MIST (minimal impact suppression techniques) during the controlled burn. The techniques prohibit cutting, digging, using fire suppressing foam — nothing that would disturb or damage the area. That makes the fire overhaul process a little more difficult, but Morgan said preserving the area is worth the extra time and effort.

Rainfall in recent days and high humidity complicated the burn somewhat, but by afternoon the sun had dried out the grass fairly well, and humidity dropped to a level where the fire could catch. Only the ground vegetation was burned — all the trees in the area were protected from flames.

Corvallis Fire was joined by members of the Philomath Fire Department, Adair Rural Fire & Rescue and the Oregon Department of Forestry in working the fire. Around 25 personnel were involved, with two water tenders and six fire engines on hand.

Jennifer Killian, the urban forester for the city of Corvallis, emphasized the value of fire as a land management tool. She said with limited staff time and resources, the burn is a great way to keep the vegetation down without using chemicals, adding that it’s a great opportunity to partner with local fire departments for training.

“Our goal is to get this to a place where we’re just in a normal maintenance cycle instead of having to do active annual management on this property,” Killian said. “And fire has historically been a part of the landscape, so it’s really great to get back to that type of management strategy.”

Killian added that Parks & Rec was excited for the opportunity to partner with the fire departments, the Institute for Applied Ecology, and Oregon Department of Forestry.

“This is the sort of partnership that cities really look to for building relationships between the fire department, the parks division, and some of our regional partners,” said Patrick Rollens, the public information officer for the city of Corvallis.

“We always look for opportunities like this to get hands-on experience throughout the year, and the fact that this has an ecological benefit as well is just kind of icing on the cake,” Rollens said. “This really builds upon the investment the Corvallis community has made in their parks and recreation facilities.”

Background

Corvallis voters approved an $8 million bond for open space and parks acquisition by a 65% margin in November 2000. Measure 02-94 added five properties to the Parks and Recreation Department: Caldwell Natural Area, the Frager property (now the Witham Hill Natural Area), Herbert Farm, Owens Farm and a Timberhill-area parcel that became the Timberhill Natural Area.

The city has paid off the bond, parlaying the 25 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value that taxpayers were charged into the extension of a separate levy that helps pay for maintenance on the properties acquired in 2000 as well as other Parks & Rec operations including the Majestic Theatre and Osborn Aquatic Center.

Mid-Valley Media reporter Jim Day contributed to this story.

Cody Mann covers the cities of Albany and Lebanon. He can be contacted at 541-812-6113 or Cody.Mann@lee.net.

“This really builds upon the investment the Corvallis community has made in their parks and recreation facilities.” – Patrick Rollens, City of Corvallis PIO

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