Fire once shaped valley landscape

Fireonce shaped valley landscape

4 March 2007

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Corvallis, OR, USA — Over a period of 12 years beginningin 1983, local historian Ken Munford wrote 561 columns for the Gazette-Times. Aspart of the city’s 150th anniversary, the newspaper will publish a selectionof these columns each Saturday. This one was originally printed Dec. 11, 1983.

Fire played an important part in shaping thelandscape the first Benton County settlers saw.

On both sides of the Willamette and Marys rivers, grassy plains spread out fromthe damp fringes of the watercourses. Meandering rows of brush and treesoutlined the creeks — Dixon, Oak and Newton on the north side of Marys River,Muddy Creek on the other side.

It is hard to believe that in one of the best tree-growing areas to be foundanywhere, nature had left so many treeless plains. Yet, descriptions andsketches by early visitors reveal that there were open prairies all through theWillamette Valley.

On the lower Willamette, along the estuary below the falls at Oregon City, thesituation was much different. What is now Multnomah County was heavily forested.The townsite of Portland had to be hacked out of an area covered with huge treesand dense undergrowth. Portland at one time was known as “Stumptown.”

Up in the Willamette Valley there were wide-open spaces on both sides of theriver. Beyond the West Hills from Portland lay the rich Tualatin Plains.Southward beyond lightly forested hills spread the Yamhill Plain around presentMcMinnville and Amity and on over the rolling savannah of Polk County. South ofBenton County the plains continued on into Lane County as far south as CottageGrove.

On the east side of the Willamette the first farmers broke sod on French Prairienear Champoeg. Covered-wagon immigrants staked claims on the plains on eitherside of the Pudding and Santiam rivers and on southward into what was sometimescalled Grand Prairie. To avoid the soggy bottomland, many settlers clung to theedge of the foothills on the east side of the valley around Molalla, Silverton,Howell Prairie, Waldo Hills, Scio, Lebanon, Brownsville, Coburg and the Forks ofthe McKenzie.

As every gardener and the grass-seed grower knows, many species of grass lovethe soil and climate of the Willamette Valley. They are vigorous and persistent.Their moisture-seeking proclivities, especially in the dry seasons, discouragethe growth of trees.

The native grasses were lush and abundant. Early settlers told of childrengetting lost in the grass, riders on horseback who could grasp heads of grass oneither side and tie them over the pommel of the saddle. One of the most vigorousspecies, now in danger of extinction, was tufted hair grass (Deschampsiacespitosa).

The grasses were undoubtedly one of the factors that kept the plains treeless,but there was another factor. For centuries the Native Americans in the valleyhad been burning off the dense tangle. They apparently did so for severalreasons — to clear the areas to provide better pasture for deer and elk, todrive out game for slaughter, to make travel easier, and possibly also just tosee the spectacle of huge fires sweeping across the plains.

We had a witness in the Corvallis area. John Work, a fur brigade leader forHudson’s Bay Co., kept a diary. Returning from a trading and trapping trip tothe Umpqua on July 2, 1834, he camped on the Marys River. He noted: “Parts ofthe plain gravelly and soil poor, herbiage getting dry and ground has an aridappearance; on the lower spots grass luxuriant. … The Indians set fire to thedry grass on the neighboring hill, but none of them came near us. The plain isalso on fire on the opposite of the Willamette.”

Settlers a dozen years later also commented on this custom of the Indians, butthey soon put a stop to it. They did not want their homesteads overrun by fire.

The Douglas fir seedlings were especially susceptible to fire, but the Oregonwhite oaks were hardier, and some of them escaped the periodic burnings. Earlydescriptions tell of the rolling hills west of Corvallis having scattered oaks.

Once fire was no longer a menace, oaks, Douglas firs and other species began tothrive. Take, for example, Avery Park, an area J.C. Avery set aside as hiswoodlot. See how trees have prospered there in the last 130 years.

From a hillside viewpoint today, the Corvallis plain looks like a wooded areawith houses nestled among oaks, Douglas firs, maples, birches, elms, floweringplums and sequoias. They help prove the point that this is a remarkably finetree-growing area when fire is not a danger.

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