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St. Helens' disappearing camas blooms

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Camas flower and oak tree savannas were once common in this area. Now they are much more rare although it is still possible to see camas blooms in the spring at Nob Hill Nature Park and even in grassy areas near city roads.A small blue-purple flower might be one of the most unique things in Columbia County.

Camas was once plentiful in the wetlands, oak savannas and grasslands of the Pacific Northwest and Oregon is still home to the greatest diversity of species. Their vast, spectacular blooms "resemble lakes of fine clear water," wrote the explorer Meriwether Lewis.

In St. Helens, the blooms still look like water.

From a distance.

If you squint.

"You still see tiny patches," said St. Helens resident Lona Pierce, who has worked with the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council as well as the Columbia Soil and Water Conservation District. "Most of them are a quarter of an acre or less. Tiny, tiny little hints."

The rocky bluffs where camas is still plentiful and relatively safe from mowing offer good habitat for the plant once used by native tribes for food and medicine, but are difficult places to protect. They don't necessarily fit a wetland designation and often other, more lucrative resources are present.

One of the last large spreads of camas prairie grows on acres of private property zoned for forestry and mining, a bluff near the Watters Quarry near Pittsburg Road.

"I realized immediately this was unique, unusual, rare habitat," Pierce said about the first time she saw the open meadows edged by second-growth Douglas fir and sprawling oaks where butterflies and bees fluttered over the blooming camas, orchids and other wildflowers.

"It looks like it should look," she said. "You think you're up in the mountains … We forget this is what it used to look like everywhere."

Pierce and others have received permission from Weyerhaeuser, which owns the land and leases a portion to Knife River, to walk across the meadows and take pictures or collect samples. It is a rich and vibrant landscape. One square foot of earth held thousands of camas bulbs as well as other seed, Pierce said.

The rock that could be mined there is valuable but, for Pierce, value is in the eye of the beholder, and what she sees is a type of land that is disappearing and cannot be replaced once it is gone.

The Scappoose Bay Watershed Council as well as other groups have joined in efforts to conserve the land over the years, said Janelle St. Pierre, former coordinator for the Watershed Council. But, added current coordinator Chas McCoy, the council only works with willing landowners and doesn't force its projects on people who aren't interested. So far, the owners and leesees of the land have not been interested.

"It (the rock) is pretty high value for them and their answer at this point has been 'no,'" St. Pierre said.

In other places, protection has been possible. Small patches of camas bloom at Nob Hill Nature Park near downtown St. Helens, and more grows in and around McCormick Park.

A wetland designation could protect the bluff near Pittsburg Road. But for the bluff, and the other places like it (and many residents insist there is nothing like the bluff), the wetland designation has not been possible. Of the three elements needed for an official wetland designation, the rocky habitats are usually missing one key piece: the saturated, low-oxygen hydric soil of traditional wetlands.

"You've got the water, you've got the plants," said Dan Cary, a wetland scientist and St. Helens resident. Cary is also the Department of State Lands resource coordinator for Clatsop, Marion and Polk counties. "The hydric soil, that's the trickier part."

The soil on the bluffs at at Nob Hill Nature park are thin.

"That's not to say the bluff wouldn't have those conditions," Cary added. "No one's ever looked. When it's wet up there, it's really wet."

There are several varieties of camas. In St. Helens, it is most typical to see Common Camas, said McCoy. There is also Great Camas and the grimly-named, inedible Death Camas.

The edible bulbs were highly valued by Northwest and California natives and almost always cooked in pits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Camas sweetened and enhanced other foods and was turned into cakes and even beverages.

For the people who want to protect it, camas represents many things: history, beauty, the world as it used to be.

"It's hard to give it value," Cary said. "What makes something valuable?"