Wandering through the dunes of the Oregon Coast feels like being on another planet. You’ve left the land but not yet reached the sea. The wide hills of sand dampen the sounds of the surf as you slowly walk, the thick sand dragging at your feet, out onto the flat expanse of the beach to be hit with the roar of the waves.
Oregon’s massive deposits of sand are actually the creation of this state’s mountains, which formed 45 million years ago. As the Coast Range weathered, rivers such as the Umpqua brought rocks and sediment to the sea to be further ground and smoothed by the Pacific Ocean and then pushed back onto the land forming dunes as tall as 500 feet and as far as three miles inland.
The Oregon Dunes run 50 miles or so along the coast from Heceta Beach to Cape Arago. Forty of those 54 miles comprise the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and are part of the Siuslaw National Forest.
And those scenic dunes, with their constantly moving ecosystem, are at risk of being lost.
An unlikely group of people has come together to try to save the Oregon Dunes, from environmentalists and government officials to off-highway vehicle riders and tribal members. The Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative is working to bring back the open, moving sands that are the unique environment of the dunes.
In order to understand why the dunes are at risk, you first have to understand that the dunes, as Dina Pavlis says, “are kind of alive.”
Pavlis, the author of Secrets of the Oregon Dunes, was an interpretive ranger for the Oregon Dunes and is a member of the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative.
The dunes, she explains, are constantly moving, and they need to move to exist. “You need three things to create a dune,” she says: a flat coastline, a lot of sand and wind to move it.
But that movement has been stopped — and that, Pavlis says, is the problem.
Years ago, the mouth of the Siuslaw River would wander as far as a mile and — before highways, when shipping was the main way to get supplies — ships would sink or get beached. When roadways were built, Pavlis says, they were another flat surface for the dunes to move over. For the settlers moving in, this created a lot of problems, and they didn’t value the dunes for their environmental qualities or tourism. You couldn’t farm them or grow timber on them, so they didn’t value them at all.
This led to an effort in the early 20th century to stabilize the dunes by planting European beachgrass, and it was extremely successful. From the perspective of the dunes, it was too successful.
European beachgrass, that lovely waving tall grass you see at the tops of the dunes often mixed in with American beachgrass, spreads aggressively with deep roots — as much as 30 feet long — and spreading rhizomes, firmly holding the sand still.
Standing on the beach, looking inland, as the surf roars and the wind blows the sand, you will see the smaller foredune, closest to the water. It was once almost all sand, but now is topped with beachgrass. Behind it, Pavlis says, is the deflation plane where, according to the U.S. Forest Service, the wind strips the sand away, essentially “deflating” the area down to the permanently wet sand.
This is where water-loving vegetation grows. Before the arrival of the beachgrass, such wetlands might have come and gone, covered and uncovered by the moving dunes, but now they are fixed.
Behind the plane are the dunes — impressive mounds of sand that almost feel like someone has taken piece of the Sahara and imported it somewhere colder and wetter. That is when the dunes have not been overcome by the grasses.
One easy and odd place to see the towering dunes is behind the Fred Meyer off Highway 101 in Florence. The dunes loom behind the store and sometimes creep over the fence. It’s a strange clash of the wild sand with the modern world that finds it so inconvenient.
There are often lonely islands of trees among those coastal dunes. Pavlis explains that at one point sand stopped moving in, and the uplift created a cliff that allowed a forest to grow. Eventually the sand moved in and covered it, leaving ghostly trees in its wake after it again moves on.
But those expanses of open sand have become few and far between. Forests have begun to grow on the once shifting sand, and they are no longer getting covered over. Other invasives such as gorse and Scotch broom have moved in, Pavlis says.
The dunes, freed of beachgrass, are powerful. “Lakes on maps are usually round or oval,” she says, “but dunes lakes have fingers and arms because they once were mountain valleys.” The dunes stemmed the streams running out of the mountain foothills.
Some of what is being lost is hard to see — literally. Pink sand verbena, a wildflower that grows only in open sand, is a federal species of concern. Grey beach pea is also declining, as are seashore bluegrass and sand fescue, which grow in the exact opposite of the habitat European beachgrass creates, preferring unstable sand.
The dunes’ insular blue butterfly is declining, and the Western snowy plover is threatened throughout its range.
Finally, the rare Siuslaw hairy-necked tiger beetle can be found in dunes habitat. According to the Xerces Society, tiger beetles, known for chasing down their prey, are the fastest insects on the planet.
Sarah Peters remembers her first trip out to the dunes, at least 15 years ago. New to Oregon, she went out to Tahkenitch Dunes, hiked and camped and fell in love.
Now, Peters says, those same dunes she saw are covered in European beachgrass.
In 2009, while she was working with conservation group Wildlands CPR, Peters was part of a lawsuit against the Forest Service that sought to stop construction of a road that would lead to more off-road vehicle (also known as off-highway vehicles or OHVs) use on the Oregon Dunes. She wrote a blog, she says, about how, although off-road vehicle management was needed, the real issue was invasive species.
Thanks to the way the blog was set up, Peters didn’t see that a man named Jody Phillips, an avid OHV user, had responded in the comments section. Six months later, when she saw the comment, Peters reached out to Phillips, asking to see if he was still open to a chat.
Phillips remembers it as well. He was fighting to keep the dunes open to OHV riders, who relish the open sand. From his perspective, when you close the dunes off to the riders, “you are trying to stop the only people trying to get rid of the grass.”
When it comes to saving the dunes, he adds, “It’s an Oregonian issue that we are losing a national treasure, not an environmentalist or rider issue.”
So Peters and Phillips had coffee. And went out on the dunes, both hiking and in one of Phillips’ vehicles, and began to hatch a plan to save the dunes. “This is never going to go anywhere,” Peters thought, “but let’s give it a shot.”
They set up a meeting with Jerry Ingersoll, then the forest supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest, and the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative was launched.
Peters is no longer active with the collaborative; Chandra LeGue of Oregon Wild is working with the group instead. Like Peters, LeGue has skepticism about OHVs but also sees the benefits of the unlikely partnerships of the collaborative.
Phillips says, “We are just concerned people, and people willing to set differences aside.”
Phillips still wants to keep the dunes accessible to off-road vehicles. Peters still says that OHVs don’t belong in areas of sensitive species habitat.
But the bigger problem, they say, is not having the dunes at all.
Collaboration has been around for a while, says Jane Kertis. She’s an area ecologist with the Forest Service’s Northwest Oregon Ecology Program. The Siuslaw National Forest in particular has been involved in collaborative effort. For the dunes, Kertis says, “it’s a way for folks to rally around a common goal of restoration.”
Kertis says, “Beachgrass is very good at its job and very difficult to get rid of — it’s unrealistic to get rid of.” In fact, she says, in some places it’s still being planted. If all the beachgrass were to be removed, you’d again be facing problems such as the dunes creeping across Highway 101. Instead, the collaborative has come up with a three-part strategy.
The first is to preserve the best parts of the dunes. “Some areas function pretty well right now,” Kertis says, with open, wind-blown sand and have native vegetation.
Next, “restore site-specific conditions and processes,” or, in other words, focus on small areas that might have particularly good snowy plover habitat and need a little help.
Part three, Kertis says, is to restore landscape-scale natural processes. “One of the biggest issues is that we have lost major processes such as sand collection and dispersal via wind and water.” The natural shifting of the dunes has been interrupted, as has the function of the ecosystem.
Ironically, one apparent aspect of the changing dunes has been to increase the numbers of not only common opportunists like crows and coyotes, but also possibly of a subspecies of Humboldt marten. Kertis says the marten “lives in huge swaths of shrub fields that have developed on the dunes thanks to dunes stabilization.”
In June, environmental groups including Cascadia Wildlands, where Peters sits on the board, and Oregon Wild, petitioned to have the Humboldt marten put on Oregon’s endangered species list. There are an estimated 200 of them in Oregon, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, 100 in the dunes.
LeGue says one conundrum is that when you open up the dunes to benefit the snowy plover, you might be risking the habitat also benefitting the Humboldt marten.
Currently, Kertis says, the Forest Service is working on an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the project to address many of the environmental issues that arise as the group seeks to protect and restore the dunes as well as the means by which they are restored and preserved.
Because the dunes are public land, projects go through a public process, with opportunity for people to weigh in on how those goals will be achieved. For example, work parties have been hand-pulling the invasive plants, but the overall project will take years and must operate on a large scale.
“We are talking about everything from hand-pulling and big machines to herbicides and burning,” Kertis says.
Phillips is kind of a fan of big machines. More precisely, he’s a fan of OHVs and using them to keep invasives at bay. Phillips founded Save the Riders Dunes as part of his efforts to both preserve the dunes and preserve the rights of OHV riders to recreate on them.
“I go back to just being a kid,” he says of riding on the dunes. “Who do you know as a kid doesn’t like to play in a sandbox?”
Phillips remembers his first trip to the dunes when he was five or six years old, back in 1957, and he laments the changes he’s seen over the years. He says he wants to preserve “the thrill of being able to go wherever you want to go, the freedom and the thrill of riding climbing big dunes.”
He adds of the broad expanses of sand: “It’s like a clean sheet of paper, and you can do what you want to with it.”
Phillips says one kind of event that benefits both the dunes and the OHV riders is “trash the grass,” in which people go out in their vehicles and use the tires to tear up the Scotch broom and European beachgrass.
It’s a family sport, Phillips says of dunes riding, and one that’s a recreational draw and moneymaker for coastal communities like Florence, Winchester and Coos Bay, all located near OHV riding areas.
Bill Blackwell, a retired deputy district ranger for Oregon Dunes Recreation Area, has a different technique for removing the invasive plants. Blackwell has been coordinating work parties to pull gorse, Scotch broom and European beachgrass from the dunes.
He says people come from as far away as Eugene and Roseburg to help restore the dunes, in groups from 10 people to as many as 23. Spring, he says, is the best time to go after bright yellow Scotch broom as it flowers and before it goes to seed, but work parties continue through the summer and the fall.
“Little plants you can pull,” Blackwell says. “For larger plants, each person has their favorite tool.”
Weed pullers are the most effective, he says, with a wrench you put on the base of the plant with a lever to pull the roots out. “Some of us use a shovel to dig down a little bit down to the root and loppers or a handsaw to cut them down.”
Collaborative member Ashley Russell understands Phillips’ affection for ATVs as one way people enjoy recreating on the dunes, but as a Miluk-Coos tribal member she also brings in a long-term perspective on the land, its history and its uses.
Russell is an enrolled member of and water specialist for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. The tribes are part of the collaborative, and Russell says the dunes are a historical village and camping site. “We still gather there,” she says.
The unique ecosystem of the dunes is home to a number of culturally significant species, Russell says, including bearberry, mussels, bog cranberries and American dune grass, which are still utilized by the tribes today.
In addition to restoration — and acknowledging the European beachgrass will never be fully removed — Russell is working on education and outreach to “inform local landowners of why this is important and why dunal processes are important.”
The tribes “lived and hunted and camped” in the dunes, she says.
Russell was brought into the collaborative by Jesse Beers, Shayuushtl’axan hiich (a Siuslaw person) and cultural stewardship manager with the confederated tribes. Cultural stewardship and natural resources are often interrelated, Beers says.
The tribes have stories associated with the dunes, Beers says, as well as traditional camp sites and cultural sites. A great example of this, he says, is Tahkenitch — the same place where Peters saw her first glimpse of the dunes.
Tahkenitch was a traditional village site, Beers says. What is now a lake system was once a river to the bay. Dunes cut off the outlet, “and now we know it as an inland lake,” he says. Possibly due to the encroaching dunes, the village was abandoned as a permanent site.
“There are lots of different village sites we don’t know about, probably under the dunes, and campsites we do know about,” Beers says.
“The most important things is just having the dunes. They are in danger of going away.”
The members of the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative are:
Dina Pavlis will present on the Oregon Dunes at an Oregon Wild Wednesday event 6 pm Oct. 10, at Claim 52 Brewing and Taproom, 1030 Tyinn Street in Eugene.
To find out more about the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative and upcoming work parties, go to saveoregondunes.org. To keep tabs on the Forest Service’s EA, go to fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52946.