Habitat vs. Asphalt
Royal Node threatens more loss of wetlands
BY MARY O’BRIEN
As the last ice age receded about 10,000 years ago, and Willamette Valley warmed, plants and animals began arriving from the south to settle in west Eugene.
Almost 7,000 years ago, crystals were growing in molten magma in the throat of Mount Mazama, known today as Crater Lake. When the volcano erupted, Mazama-fingerprinted ash was blown north and northeast over 500,000 square miles. One of the places the ash accumulated was the flat southern Willamette Valley. It formed the heavy clay that makes West Eugene’s wetlands. Draining slowly, water stands in the clay wetlands during winter. Our cloudless summer days dry up the clay, which shrinks and cracks as far as three feet down. Long-lived (perennial) bunchgrasses could dominate in these wetlands, with a diversity of 100-200 herbaceous (forb) species and scattered oaks and streamside (riparian) trees.
For many generations, Kalapuya Indians set the wetland prairies on fire. As 1845 Salem settler John Minto wrote, “Fire was the agency used by the Calapooia tribes to hold their camas grounds and renew their berry patches and grasslands for game and the millions of geese, brants, cranes, and swans which wintered in Western Oregon.”
And then the Oregon settlers figured the prairie was theirs and stopped setting it on fire.
By 1853, surveyors had divided western lands into townships (6 miles square) and sections (one mile square) and set out on foot to describe each section. In west Eugene, surveyors reported that the Willamette River inundated the prairie “one to three feet deep” and optimistically pronounced the soil “first rate clay loam.”
Early settlers mostly pastured cattle and subsistence-farmed the prairie for wheat. Late spring entry into soggy fields and dry summers precluded competing in the commercial world of wheat exports, but the farmers eventually found their niche in rye grass. Most of the once-diverse prairie community was transformed into monocultures of exotic grass. Twentieth century berming, diking, ditching and draining to halt annual overbank flooding and dewater the wetlands further eliminated wetland prairie functioning and allowed Eugene to grow from 7.5 square miles in 1945 to 42 square miles 50 years later.
With this Eugene wetlands history repeating itself throughout the 110-mile long Willamette Valley, we have now arrived at the near complete (99.9 percent) extinction of our valley’s wetland prairie. But apparently we’re not done.
“Nodal developments” are supposedly walkable sites of purposely zoned dense housing, infrastructure, stores and parking lots designed to help Eugene meet Oregon’s goal of zero increases in “vehicle miles traveled.” By this standard, the proposed “Royal Node” in West Eugene has to qualify as a “who-are-we-kidding” plan.
First, the plan is to build Royal Node smack in the middle of rural west Eugene wetlands. Those wetlands have not even been delineated (i.e., surveyed for the amount of wetlands that would be destroyed), but streets (e.g., the ironically named Legacy Street) and sewers are in the city’s funding and planning pipeline to anchor the Royal Node. The dense urban node would be jammed up against City and BLM public wetlands that are being “restored,” further fragmenting their functions and viability as functioning habitat — for instance, for meadowlarks.
Secondly, instead of building a node in the core of Eugene, the city is locating Royal Node at the far western edge of Eugene’s urban growth boundary in isolation from any promising mass transit. On average, residents in this area do and will drive far more vehicle miles per day than Eugene core residents.
As I padded through “Royal Node” wetlands two weekends ago in the rain, ducks rose from among glittering sedges, a great blue heron sailed into the nearby Greenhill tributary, shorebirds poked around in the mud for lunch and swallows swarmed above ponds into which neon-painted stakes (for Legacy Street? the Legacy sewer?) had been pounded. The swallows seemed unaware that their habitat is about to disappear under asphalt.
This is sustainable Eugene? If we can’t reorient our subsidized nodal developments away from climate-warming, petroleum-addicted, car-oriented sites like the Royal Node, where land and water meet in the last 0.1 percent remaining wetlands of the Willamette Valley, what hope is there for Eugene claiming to be “sustainable”?
A good website for understanding Royal Node plans is www.archiplanet.org/wiki/Royal_Avenue_Node,_Eugene,_Oregon Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at email@example.com