Camassia Natural Area celebrates 55th anniversary as Oregon Nature Conservancy preserve, organization's first in Oregon

TIDINGS PHOTO: LESLIE PUGMIRE HOLE - In centuries past, native tribes burned the forests surrounded camas meadows to create better habitat for the important food source. One of West Linn's best kept secrets is showing off its treasures this month, as Camassia Natural Area celebrates 55 years nurtured by The Nature Conservancy. The site is Oregon's first preserve owned by the nonprofit organization.

Spring is the pinnacle for Camassia, when its meadows fill with blooming camas and other wildflowers. The ponds are full and hikers on the 26-acre rocky plateau are treated to the combined cacophony of hordes of "spring peeper" frogs and traffic from the nearby I-205.TIDINGS PHOTO: LESLIE PUGMIRE HOLE - The Nature Conservancy will have experts on hand May 14 to help vistors better understand the natural resouces at Camassia Natural Area.

More than 300 plant species have been documented at Camassia, along with birds like the hairy woodpecker, Western bluebird, wood duck and golden-crowned kinglet.

"Spring is when the flowers are out but during summer there is lots of wildlife and in winter I particularly like how you can see the exposed bedrock and the madrone trees," says Joe Buttafuoco, preserve manager for Camassia.

The park's namesake, common camas, is also known by some as wild hyacinth or camas lily. Found all over the West, the plants were a staple in the diet of Northwest tribes, who harvested the bulbs for roasting, boiling or grinding into flour. The flower prefers open meadow and Nature Conversancy has worked over the years to restore Camassia's open areas, which look like they are filled with delicate purple feathers when the flowers are at their prime. COURTESY PHOTO:  KLAHOWYA - Camas bulbs are very high in protein and were cooked and preserved in a variety of ways by native peoples.

"We've done some massive removal of invasive species like blackberries, scotch broom and ivy," Buttafuoco says. "Camas spread pretty well on their own but in two of the meadows we needed to remove invasives because they were crowding the native plants out. We've also spread some native seeds, including camas."

Camassia isn't just meadows full of flowers but forests of native undergrowth plants, creeks and wetlands. The park contains a stand of aspen as well as the once common and fire resistant white oak, which is native to the site. Volunteers have worked to remove invasive Douglas fir, which grow fast and create shade that discourages the oak seedlings. Some firs were removed entirely and others were girdled — removing a ring of bark to slowly kill the tree — and left in place to provide habitat for animals.

"We've seen a lot of critters in those snags so we know it works," Buttafuoco says. Before European settlement, Oregon tribes would set fire to the forest where camas grew, a technique that kept the landscape open but didn't kill the older oaks.

Volunteers have helped to keep Camassia's trails maintained and welcoming, so visitors do not tread through delicate plant habitat. Most of the meadows and many of the low-lying wetland areas have boardwalks for visitors. TIDINGS PHOTO: LESLIE PUGMIRE HOLE - Efforts have been underway for decades to restore Camassia to its more natural white oak forest habitat.

According to Battafuoco, it's his understanding that part of the site was used as a dump for many years. On the property's east end, near West Linn High School, an abandoned quarry has begun to fill with native trees and plants.

Battafuoco describes Camassia as in "maintenance mode," with volunteers concentrating on the everlasting battle of ripping out invasive plants and keeping trails maintained. Milkweed was recently planted, to provide a habitat for migrating monarch butterflies. Volunteers also help remove invasive species in neighboring Wilderness Park, which is not owned by The Nature Conservancy. TIDINGS PHOTO: LESLIE PUGMIRE HOLE - Camas only blooms through May as a rule, giving way to summertime wildflowers.

"They don't have a big volunteer pool and it helps us as well, by pushing back (the invasives) from our borders," he says.

The Nature Conservancy is hosting an event at Camassia May 14, Mother's Day, where volunteer naturalists will be stationed along flat sections of the trail to help educate visitors about the site's natural features.

Mothers Day at Camassia Natural Area

May 14, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

To get there from Willamette Falls Drive, turn onto Sunset Avenue and cross over I-205. Turn right on Walnut Street and proceed to where the road deadends, where there is a small trailhead parking area. You can also park at West Linn High School, where there is a trailhead. Sorry, no dogs are allowed at Camassia.

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