Will a Butterfly Flap It’s Wings? The Understory Initiative to Restore Southern Oregon’s Native Landscapes
Over the last three decades the Western monarch butterflies, which annually migrate from the Pacific Northwest down to California, have declined to a thin sliver of their former population. Without the native milkweed to lay its eggs on, or wildflowers to refuel from along its 500-mile migration to California, these crucial pollinators are nearing the extinction mark.
Southern Oregon savannas and prairies were once abundantly filled with native grasses, wildflowers and milkweed. Oregon remains a leader in ecological conservation, yet the understory, the tiny plant community underfoot, has often received less attention from restoration practitioners in Southern Oregon, until now.
The Understory Initiative is a non-profit organization with a mission to agriculturally produce seed from native species as well as educate and foster community partnerships in helping restore native herbs and grasses. Founding member and executive director, Kathryn Prive, recognized a lack of available seed for restoration purposes while working for Rogue Native Plant Partnership. A graduate of University of Oregon and Oregon State University, she is using her background in population genetics and ecological restoration to help southern Oregon lands return to the resilient, greener habitats they once were.
“There’s a good number of organizations focusing on streams and riparian areas,” Prive says, “but there’s not an organization that’s really focused on prairies, the oak savannas and the flora and grasses that grow under conifer forests.”
Southern Oregon’s oak savannas boast the second most bio-diverse habitats in the United States, according to Prive, and restoring them is crucial, for pollinators who provide important pollination services, and also for reducing extreme fire events.
“If you look up at the hills above Ashland in the summer, everything is brown,” she says. “The grazing livestock, over the decades, essentially hammered the native plant communities to the extent where the only thing that could survive were these annual short lived grasses.”
Allowed to spread, the tall non-native grasses have become tinder for today’s mega-fires.
“They green up quick and take up a lot of space,” Prive adds. “They outcompete everything else and then go brown right when fire season is starting, creating a cycle where there’s a potential for more enhanced, bigger fires that get up in the canopy.”
Native species she and her colleagues work with are low-growing and stay green into the fall. Prive says the perfect opportunity to spread native seed abundantly is after a prescribed fire, or controlled burn, when the invasive grasses have been burned away.
Development, overgrazing as well as vineyards and marijuana farms are threatening the oak understory as they expand into the hillsides.
“The areas where growers tend to build their farms and the giant greenhouses are now increasingly in the hills, in a lot of the oak understory communities,” she says. “I think there’s a way to start managing a better balance.”
“A big goal for us is in the next couple of years is to lease a much larger piece of property and get enough funding to acquire the right equipment,” she says. “Nobody has ever tried to grow some of these native species in an agricultural setting. It’s going to be some work to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
Seedlings, called ‘plugs’, are another method Prive believes could help support native ecosystems. Started from the farm’s seeds, they’re ideal for establishing native plant communities or residential gardens.
“There are trees and shrubs that flower and support pollinators,” she says, “but for the most part, the plants that provide nectar and are attractive to bees and butterflies and birds are going to be in the understory plant community. Some of our partners may want to do a pollinator garden in their backyard and so it’s going to be kind of a volunteer project.”
Public Rogue Native Plant Partnership meeting
1 – 4 pm, Tuesday, March 26
Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District office, 89 Alder Street, Central Point
Living On Your Land Conference
Saturday, April 27
Redwood Campus, 3345 Redwood Highway, Grants Pass