Hiking the Oregon Dunes: A lesson in ecosystem destruction

  • A view of the Oregon Dunes. Vegetation is taking over just past the water line.

Our hike through the Oregon Dunes was a lesson in how man can screw up nature, wrecking perfectly functioning ecosystems, probably beyond repair.

We’ve hiked other dunes in Indiana, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado and the gypsum sands in White Sands, New Mexico. So I was expecting to be slipping and sliding my way up and over shifting peaks. Instead, other than a few, small patches of sand, we were trudging over stable trails, under the shade of tall trees, hemmed in by bushes. What the hell kind of dunes were these?

Well, they’re dunes altered by man’s ignorance.

The sad story is outlined in a new booklet, Restoring Oregon’s Dunes: The bid to save a national treasure, recently published by the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative.

According to the booklet, the dunes formed from sediment washed down eons ago from the Cascades and Coast Range into the Siuslaw, Siltcoos, Tahkenitch, Umpqua and Coos rivers. When the sea receded, the sand was blown into a huge reservoir, then inundated when the sea rose again. Waves pushed it onto the broad shelf of Oregon coastline, where it became a home for the Western snowy plover, which lays its eggs in open sand near the shore, and the Siuslaw hairy-necked tiger beetle, the world’s fastest known beetle. Only hearty plants like rare pink sand verbena, blue fescue, seashore bluegrass, lupine and wild pea bloomed on these moving sands.

On our hike, after the first section of sand, we walked past miles of shore pines, wildflowers, berry bushes and leafy green ground cover.

Native Americans hiked these dunes at least 8,000 years ago, collecting salmon and shellfish, but the first permanent settlement was Umpqua City, in 1850. It had a hotel and post office, all abandoned after 18 years to the blowing sands. Tribes were forced into reservations and the dunes opened to homesteading, but most claims were eventually abandoned. And when Highway 101 was completed in 1930s, sand would drift over the road, making it impassable.

A healthy dune system, the booklet explained, has a wrack line, debris left by high tides, a foredune parallel to the ocean, a deflation plain where wind has scoured away sand to the water table creating temporary ponds, transverse dunes created by summer winds, isolated forest remnants, and oblique dunes, up to 190 feet high, created by winter winds and constantly in motion.

But, according to the collaborative, the dunes are disappearing before our eyes, and the job of saving them is too big for just one group. The, collaborative, an odd marriage of recreation enthusiasts, environmentalists, public organizations, Native tribes and private citizens has three goals: to maintain and protect existing healthy areas, to restore targeted areas of special interest, and to restore large landscape-scale natural processes.

The biggest issue: European beach grass.

Starting in the early 1900s, people wanted to control the sand to protect their homes, roads and waterways. They imported European beach grass. One 1950 project planted 36 acres.

The roots of the European beach grass can grow through 30 feet of sand to groundwater. It creates mats that catch and hold sand.

The open beach narrowed. Other invasive plants moved in, including Scotch broom and Gorse, which has seeds that can live in the sand for decades before germinating. Permanent wetlands emerged. Coyotes increased. Trees took hold.

The dunes changed. The sand stopped moving.

In 1972, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area was established. People started to ask why the dunes were different, and restoration efforts began.

But it’s a nearly impossible task.

In 2004, workers bulldozed European beach grass, hand–pulled Scotch broom and young shore pine and conducted a prescribed burn. Thirty acres of open sand was regained. But, without maintenance, by 2012, regrowth of invasive beach grass was already evident.

To learn more, volunteer or donate to the restoration, visit https://www.saveoregondunes.org.

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