Conservation can be a lonely enterprise, with individual projects operating in isolation from one another.

But it can also be a team sport.

That’s the way the Greenbelt Land Trust is approaching its newest land acquisition, a pair of adjoining properties known as Kingston Prairie and Kingston Hills.

Located near the northern edge of Linn County about 15 miles east of Salem, the two parcels represent an unusual opportunity to preserve and restore a variety of threatened habitat types in one place.

At the same time, the Kingston properties also provide a chance to create synergy with a number of other conservation projects in the immediate neighborhood and build on a growing network of protected lands throughout the Willamette Valley managed by a multitude of different entities.

It’s all part of Greenbelt’s long-range strategy of acquiring, preserving and restoring lands that will provide the greatest conservation benefit throughout its four-county service area.

“We think of conservation as being a collaborative effort,” said Claire Fiegener, the conservation director for the Corvallis-based nonprofit, which now has 3,662 acres under management.

“We can’t do this work in isolation. We work with partners and neighbors and our funders to lay out the best management options for the future.”

Kingston Prairie

The Kingston Prairie Preserve covers 155 acres on either side of Kingston-Lyons Drive in the green countryside just southeast of Stayton, a Marion County community of about 8,000 people that bills itself as “the gateway to the Santiam Canyon.”

It’s a small island of remnant native prairie and oak savanna, two of the Willamette Valley’s most heavily depleted habitat types, surrounded by a patchwork sea of grass seed fields, Christmas tree plantations, timber tracts and farmhouses.

The prairie grasses have faded this time of year, leaving the landscape a dull brown. That will change completely come spring, when the new green growth will erupt in a riot of hot-pink shooting star, purple camas and white saxifrage. Also in the mix are Oregon sunshine, potentilla, yarrow and lily.

“It’s lush with flowers in springtime,” Fiegener said. “It’s really a dramatic explosion.”

Kingston Prairie is home to a number of rare plants, including the endangered Bradshaw’s lomatium and Willamette daisy. It also supports northern harriers and other raptors, as well as songbirds such as the western meadowlark, once widespread in the Willamette Valley but now in decline.

“We have breeding pairs there (in the spring), but we have a larger population that overwinters there,” Fiegener said.

Land transfer

The Kingston Prairie property was acquired about 20 years ago by The Nature Conservancy, which turned it into a nature preserve that was open to the public. Despite the site’s out-of-the way location, it has become popular with birdwatchers, wildflower enthusiasts and nature lovers in general.

But in early September, the conservancy transferred ownership of the property to Greenbelt, which will continue to allow public access while maintaining and enhancing the native habitat there.

Such a move is not unusual for The Nature Conservancy, said Derek Johnson, the nonprofit’s Oregon director of protection and stewardship.

“The conservancy works with partners all over the United States,” Johnson said. “We’ve transferred several places here in Oregon to land trusts and other organizations.”

The two groups have worked together before, and their strategic goals in the area were already in alignment. So it made sense for Greenbelt to take over management of Kingston Prairie, Fiegener said, especially since the organization was already working with a willing landowner to acquire an adjoining 406-acre parcel.

Greenbelt purchased that property, known as Santiam Kingston Hills (or Kingston Hills for short), in late September for about $2.5 million.

Most of the money for the land was provided by the Willamette Wildlife Mitigation Program, a joint conservation fund that’s administered through the Bonneville Power Administration and the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, with additional funding from Greenbelt donors and the Meyer Memorial Trust. The BPA, which markets power generated by federal hydroelectric dams in the Northwest, is obligated to fund a certain amount of habitat restoration to mitigate damage from the 13 hydro dams in the Willamette River Basin.

Greenbelt plans to manage the two parcels as a single, 561-acre unit, and the land trust has secured more than $1 million in long-term stewardship funds from the Willamette Wildlife Mitigation Program and The Nature Conservancy.

Kingston Hills

Kingston Hills rises gradually toward the east from the prairie’s edge, starting at about 500 feet in elevation and topping out at around 1,025 feet. From there it drops sharply to the edge of the North Santiam River.

While roughly a third of the property was being farmed for grass seed by the previous owners, the land also harbors patches of native plant communities representing a number of habitat types, from upland prairie to oak woodland, riparian forest and floodplain forest.

Over the next 10-15 years, Fiegener said, Greenbelt will phase out farming and restore the cultivated fields, rooting out invasive plants and enhancing the native vegetation to support wildlife on the property, including ospreys, bald eagles, great blue herons and migratory songbirds.

Another long-term goal: creating opportunities for public access, including a hiking trail to the crest of the hill, which offers sweeping vistas of the surrounding area.

“You can get to the top of that and have a 360-degree view above the treeline,” Fiegener said.

“On a clear day, you can see Mount Jefferson and the Cascades really well.”

Public tours of both properties are being planned for next spring.

Making connections

One of the things that makes Kingston Hills significant from a broader conservation perspective is the fact that it has about a mile of Santiam River frontage.

There’s a slough that provides resting and rearing habitat for sensitive fish species, including Oregon chub, Pacific lamprey, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. The mature forest on that side of the property filters excess sediment out of runoff, while springs and underground flows provide an infusion of cool water that helps hold down temperatures in the river.

Keeping the river clean is also critical for the region’s human population, and Greenbelt’s newly acquired land has a role to play in that as well.

“Just across the river from the property is the drinking water intake for Salem and several other communities,” Fiegener said.

“Protecting the riparian corridor in that area is particularly important for community water supply.”

But Greenbelt is only the latest player to see the value in protecting and restoring land along this stretch of the North Santiam.

Altogether, Fiegener estimates, there are close to 2,000 acres of other protected lands nearby, including sizable parcels owned by Stayton, Salem, the Bureau of Land Management and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

“There’s been a lot of effort put into this region, too, by U.S. Fish & Wildlife, watershed councils and private landowners doing restoration work,” she said.

“It’s been a hub of activity for restoration. We just wanted to build on what our partners are doing.”

Seeing the big picture

The Kingston Hills and Kingston Prairie acquisitions also fit into a growing mosaic of conservation lands throughout the Willamette Valley, where roughly 70 percent of the state’s population lives and native habitats have been hammered by agriculture, industry and urban development.

Those protected properties are owned by a bewildering variety of entities, from federal, state and local governments to tribes, nonprofits and private individuals.

Increasingly, however, those diverse owners are working together to manage these sensitive lands in ways that support common conservation goals. Guiding their efforts is the Oregon Conservation Strategy, a plan worked out by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife aimed at preserving healthy populations of fish and wildlife.

Since the strategy’s publication in 2006, many of the conservation organizations working in Oregon have adapted their own strategic plans to align with the state’s conservation roadmap. Here in the Willamette Valley, that has led to ever-closer coordination among the various players, according to The Nature Conservancy’s Johnson.

“A number of partners have worked together – and the conservancy was one of them – over the last five or 10 years on identifying the most important properties for conservation in the Willamette Valley,” he said.

“Lots of groups had different priority maps, so the trick was to make sure we were all singing from the same song sheet.”

The Kingston Prairie-Kingston Hills area had long been on Greenbelt’s radar as an anchor site, an area with significant amounts of intact native habitat and high restoration potential. The opportunity to bring all 561 acres under the organization’s stewardship was too good to resist, according to Greenbelt Executive Director Michael Pope.

“There are few places in the Willamette Valley where you can find such a complex mixture of native habitats providing sanctuary for wildlife,” Pope said.

“Protecting this place will have lasting impacts for generations to come.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.