Wilderness in the City
Words by Morgan Krakow Photos by Kjersten Hellis
Clad in a forest-green rain suit, Glen Neal jiggles a weed wrench around the bottom of a blackberry bush. The orange metal clamp swings back and forth, gripped to the plant as the roots begin to rupture the soft earth. He and eight other volunteers from the Cascade Family Fly Fishers tread through the matted grasses. The group is working to remove invasive plant species, creating space for turtle nesting sites in Eugene’s Delta Ponds.
Nestled between apartment complexes, a mall, and car dealerships, the ponds are home to over 150 species of birds and other animals native to the area like river otters, beavers, and turtles. The space provides visitors with scenic walking paths to engage with nature.
The Ponds are wilderness in Eugene’s own backyard. They are not remote tracts of land or inaccessible forest; they are nature for the people and cared for by the people. The wilderness and the residents of Eugene are an interplay between volunteers and green herons, morning joggers and great horned owls, bikers and willow trees. They represent a concerted effort to create inspirational and sustainable spaces within cities.
From Gravel Mine to Wildlife Refuge:
The Ponds, which teem with native plants and wildlife today, once looked similar to an offshoot from the Willamette River. In the 1960s and 1970s, the area just off of Delta Highway and Goodpasture Island Road was mined for gravel and then left untouched. Invasive plants like Scotch broom and blackberry crept in, and the area remained undeveloped.
In the late 1990s, the city proposed to restore the ponds, to take them back to their original state. It would provide a place for juvenile Chinook salmon to rest on their way to the ocean and a sanctuary of wilderness in the center of Eugene. After this restoration project was approved, volunteers, engineers, city planners, and ecologists, like Lauri Holts, set to work on the restoration. Holts worked solely on restoring vegetation within the Ponds for two years, then was brought on permanently to manage ecology across multiple Eugene outdoor areas.
When the process began, the Ponds were an overgrown landscape. Holts referred to the area as a “near monoculture,” with only one or two species of plants living there. Legislation requiring companies to replant with native species did not exist at the time that the mining companies finished the digs, so invasive plants immediately took root. Holts and her team began an effort to restore 30 to 50 plants native to the area that would better serve the wildlife.
“In the beginning, everything seemed so small,” Holts remembers. “It’s not like building a park where you see the changes in a few months after construction. It takes time for all the vegetation to grow and so that’s really rewarding for me to have watched it all on the way.”
With time, the life around the ponds began to diversify. Great horned owls flew and hooted, sapling trees drank up the groundwater without having to compete with the aggressive invasive species, and juvenile Chinook salmon were swimming in to rest in the shallow areas of the pond. Life sprang up around the restoration, and grew year after year. Even though it was hard to imagine the towering trees and brush that the ponds have today, there was a clear path toward restoration.
Nature by and for the People
Carrie Karl coordinates volunteers, like Neal, who come out to the ponds and steward the area. Despite the heron, hawks, eagles, and ducks that fly overhead, Karl uses a more mythical bird to describe the history of the ponds.
“I would liken the Delta Ponds to the phoenix,” Karl says. “It’s rising from the ashes of something else. There is a significant amount of energy and work that went into this to make it happen.”
While the Delta Ponds are a regression to original Oregon wilderness, they are also a progression toward the sustainable cities of the future. In a world of disappearing wetlands and natural areas, this neighborhood conservation effort stands as an example of community sustainability in practice.
Karl watches children, bird watchers, neighbors, fly fishers and everyone in between work side by side to help keep invasive species out and encourage the native plant and animal growth. The ponds need this kind of help from the community in order to keep the varied and hearty landscape that exists today. To Karl, these volunteer efforts are just one example of the way the community engages with the Delta Ponds. She sometimes wonders whether people will continue to care as much as she does for the wetlands.
“[Community members] are there to see the different types of birds, the pollinators, the beauty of the flowers and the variety of plants that would call that space home,” Karl says. “If you don’t steward that, if you don’t care for that, these other species will come over and they’ll win the battle. They’ll take it over completely.”
Neal and his fly fishing group have tried to stave off these invasive species. He recalls talking with his group about the importance of protecting the environment but never actually doing anything about it. So, he sought out the ponds and offered up his group to lend a hand. That was four years ago, and today the group continues in its volunteerism.
“Conservation is important to our club,” Neal says. “And I don’t ever have trouble getting 10-20 volunteers out there on a Saturday.”
Restorative for Humans and Animals Alike
Eugene resident and University of Oregon student Sam Hoffman is majoring in environmental studies and minoring in planning, public policy, and management. She says that spaces like the Eugene Delta Ponds cultivate an early connection to the environment. While the ponds are unique, Hoffman says they echo a trend across the nation toward creating tangible nature in already urbanized areas.
“I think a lot of people are really tactile learners,” Hoffman says. “So, to be able to see something in its natural state is really genuine.”
Karl thinks the project matters to the community because it is accessible nature. She appreciates the connection the Ponds have to children, because it demonstrates how they are also an investment in a more sustainable future.
“I think seeing the light in their eyes, and at the end of the tour having the kids say to me, ‘Yes, I want to be a scientist,’ or ‘I want to go and do what you do,’ or ‘I want to care for places like this,’ I think that can be tremendously helpful,” Karl says.
However, the Ponds do not just serve a single demographic. Just as a variety of birds and fish find solace in this tract of undeveloped land, so do a diverse set of community members who bike, jog or stroll through the natural areas.
Karl believes they achieve a certain level of calm there. “You’re able to be inspired, then go back to your day to day work and be rejuvenated by it,” she says. “It’s a real place and people sense that. And the authenticity of it holds a lot of meaning for a person of any age.”
In Karl’s words, the Ponds are not contrived. They are the way Eugene’s river lands should look. They reflect a rich ecological history as well as a sustainable future. They are nature, in the heart of the city.