Seasonal Wetlands and Minto-Brown Island Park

It seems important to tribes that if they are truly to become restored, and decolonized, they need to be culturally restored by helping to decolonize their lands and traditional resources at the same time. Tribes did not independently become culture but there are important interactions with their land and its resources that helped develop their cultures. Therefore, tribal restoration and environmental restoration are linked elements in decolonization.

But there is also many other reasons for restoring traditional landscapes, for the safety and security of the many peoples who now live here, for the health of the land and the planet, for the well-being of the humans who now occupy many former tribal spaces. These people are going to remain, and so restoration and decolonization must incorporate the needs of the many peoples who live here. It appears that the goals of these groups are well aligned. The tribes want to restore the land and revitalize the cultures. These goals appear to have the same of the other people who now live here.

Assuming our mission is aligned, the question is how do we get there.

After my studies of seasonal wetlands and efforts to make western Oregon more arid by settlers- I came to new understandings of changes made to the Willamette Valley. Fire has been a big issue of late and many studies have moved to looking at cultural fire as an answer to the problems of maintaining traditional landscapes. This seems important and critical. Its clear that there are numerous blockades to making this happen but many studies are now being done to record the effect of fire on the land, how it can be used safely, and the benefits to society as a whole. It is hoped that with enough evidence that we will being to change minds and be able to implement cultural fires as a land stewardship method. Essentially these efforts are rebuilding the conditions of the early 19th century when cultural fire was the norm. The tribes set fires annually for many purposes and those cultural fires help steward the environment for all peoples, even settlers. There has been 120-some years of timber management policy that has mis-educated generations of people about the best way to “preserve” timber for economic activities like logging. I won’t delve deeply into this issue at this time but that is one of the blockages we face when proposing cultural fire.

So, fire may be the answer for many things, to manage the constant threat to our western civilization with wildfires, that in recent years that have burned down towns and threatened major metropolitan centers. It is also a technique for restoring traditional landscapes for tribal people and like-minded environmentalists.

But back to water, my recent work in understanding how water systems were so radically changed involved Wapato Lake and Lake Labish. These lakes were drained in 1935 and 1918 respectively by members of the Hayes family of California investors. These investors were not really farmers, but invested in this lands at these two lakes when the land was considered worthless (and therefore cheap). They took advantage of weak policies meant to protect lakes and were allowed to drain off both lakes so that when they were done the land became “worthwhile” and some of the best agricultural lands in Oregon, and they could then sell their land at much higher prices, and make millions. They spent only about $100,000 to drain these lakes and because agricultural policy in Oregon sought more arid soils for longer growing seasons, more land, and less risk of seasonal flooding, they were allowed to do this. Farmers in the areas of the lakes benefited greatly from the more arid soils. This is not so much of a problem if we are addressing a few scattered areas, but when the majority of the valley of some 3.4 million acres is altered in this manner, then there is no room for native plants or animals to live.

The seasonal floodplains of the valley are I think an important concept to think about. Yes the Kalapuyans used fire to burn off the land in September, but that land was not an arid land, well drained with innumerable water management ditches. In Oregon the seasonal wetlands can come really anytime, because rain is a factor all times of the year. This means that low-lying marshes, swamps, swales, ponds, and lakes would grow after rains and shrink when there is less rain. Water and seasonal wetlands then have to be a part of the calculation when thinking about restoration and decolonization. It is not just fire which managed the land but water too, because moisture is necessary for all life and the valley’s ecosystems are adapted to seasonal wetland environment for thousands of years. The arid landscape created by settlers has radically changed the amount of water we have that remains in the valley seasonally to help the plants and animals. The water too, may have a role in managing fire and its effects on the land.

We can see this effect in some early accounts, from 1841, in the Willamette Valley. In 1841 the Wilkes expedition traveled south through the valley and witnessed the effects of fire and seasonal wetlands. Days before there had been scattered rains in the valley, which would have created the seasonal wetlands.

George Emmons 9/10/1841

“Passed over a level prairie, perfectly barren having been burnt like most of the country– could not determine the extent owing to the smoke which confined our view within a space of about two miles round- Skirted the margin of a small lake of fresh water, the surface but about a foot below the surface of the prairie... the banks being steep and mirey.”

These seasonal floodplains were occurring at the same time as the cultural fires were set. It was quite common for rains to begin in September which is why the growing season of the Oregon summer is shorter than most other agricultural areas. The wetter forests, many bordering rivers and creeks would stop the fire from continuing further. The explorers described the thin forest bands as areas that their horses could find forage, because the plains were all burnt and so the horses could not eat there. This may be why in the evening when the horses were put out for the night that many would wander very far, necessitating men to go look for them, sometimes taking half a day. The horses had to wander to find forage enough.

Recently, I have been visiting Minto-Brown Park and encountered a seasonal wetland there.

May 4th 2022 Juncus patch in the middle of Farm Field, a low spot in the prairie. Juncus like wetlands and so this area is likely a creek site.
May 10th 2022, Same area looking opposite direction, now a significant low-lying swale of water. It was deep enough to have fish swimming around. The Juncus are not visible and the camas are partly submerged. This is a seasonal wetland site.
May 19th 2022, the Juncus have returned, the swale has dried up and the plants are fine, they are not drowned and the water is nearly gone. There was only a bit of water on the trail. the seasonal wetland lasted about 2 weeks. The prairies in the park are incidentally really good candidates for cultural burn sites.

The same can be seen at the footbridge which links to the city of Salem.

May 9th 2022- At the Peter Courtney footbridge, we can see how the settling ponds (former Willamette Indust./Boise Cascade milling settling ponds) are filled in and have become significant seasonal ponds. They host ducks and geese and after about 2 weeks the ponds drained out into the Willamette slough.

This seasonal wetland would have been what much of the Valley was like 150 years ago. Through drainage techniques now most of the land is made more arid, with ditches, and drain fields created to move water off the land fast. Water no longer remains in the valley long. If we are to restore the valley with areas of native landscapes it will take reversing the effects of drainage techniques, to allow water  to remain in certain areas longer so that native plants and environments may return.

Studies of the effects of bringing back water to the valley would be helpful to understanding how we could implement better methods of fire stewardship during culture burning.

5 thoughts on “Seasonal Wetlands and Minto-Brown Island Park

  1. Important article about habitat restoration. I have been volunteering on local habitat restoration projects, including wetland restoration, and I am restoring the half lot that I live on as every little bit helps. I’m keenly aware of my own family history and my ancestors involvement in destroying both Wapato Lake and Lake Labish. Some of my ancestors acted out of ignorance but others purposefully set out to destroy native food crops. Now I’m planting camas and other native foods and teaching others about them in hopes that this generation can learn the importance of native plants and wetlands to the well-being of all of us.

  2. Thank you David! Your posts are helping me more fully understand the land that I grew up on around Eugene and am presently living on here in Ridgefield Washington, and how central water was to these landscapes before colonization. I remember (maybe 25 years ago?) listening to David Suzuki, on his PBS program, describing the salmon cycle as a nutrient conveyor belt that ran from the ocean deep into the forests, with all of the animals that caught and scavenged those salmon (bears, wolves, eagle, osprey and other birds, etc. etc.) spreading the nutrients from those salmon bodies throughout the forests and basically fertilizing the forests from California to Alaska. Recently, reading Ben Goldfarb’s _Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter_, I learned how beaver and salmon were an ancient keystone-species team until just a couple of hundred years ago when the beaver were mostly trapped out. To your point about how this wet landscape would have been a fire retardant on landscape fires, I recently read an article put out by OPB about a program in Phoenix and Talent using beaver to create fire suppression:
    I would be interested to hear any thoughts you may have beyond what you have already written on how this web of life and cultural fire may have played out in the areas around you there in Salem.
    Again, thank you for QUARTUX!

  3. Hi, to David: I have a lot of greater camas in my yard. There’s also the wonderful field of the smaller camas in the State Fairgrounds area. I’m saving seeds and have at times dispersed some at Minto-Brown in what looked seemed like likely areas. I appreciate your blog and am following now. Question: you probably are familiar with the book “Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians”. Do you happen to know if there is a similar book available for the Athabascan peoples around Port Orford?

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